N.H. high court upholds conviction in cop-killing; no final ruling yet on death sentence
Clockwise from top right: The scene outside the Lambert Funeral Home in Manchester at Officer Michael Briggs's wake in October 2006; Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Lynn speaks during the oral arguments in the death penalty appeal in November 2012; Michael Addison during his arraignment on November 2006; Briggs's sons Mitchell and Brian with their mother Laura at a ceremony honoring the officer at the State House in December 2010.
Monitor file photos
Top: Michael Addison's attorney David Rothstein, left, argues the defense case before the state Supreme Court in Concord in this April 2010 file photo, during a required review of the death sentence. Bottom: Michael Addison looks around in Manchester as jurors view the area where Manchester police officer Michael Briggs was shot and killed in this file photo from October 2008.
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld Michael Addison’s capital murder conviction in the 2006 slaying of a Manchester police officer, and it ruled that New Hampshire’s death penalty law doesn’t violate the state Constitution.
But the high court didn’t make a final decision on whether Addison should be executed for fatally shooting Michael Briggs, a 35-year-old father of two from Concord.
The court still must decide whether Addison’s death sentence, imposed by a jury in 2008, was excessive or disproportionate compared with the penalties imposed in similar cases.
If the court eventually upholds his death sentence, Addison, now 33, would remain on track to become the first person executed by the state since 1939.
“They rejected every single one of the defense’s arguments,” said Buzz Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, of yesterday’s ruling.
Now, Scherr said, “There’s only one more to go.”
Addison’s lawyers said they disagreed with the court’s 5-0, 243-page decision, which was issued per curiam, or without listing a single author.
“We disagree with the court’s decision to affirm Michael Addison’s capital murder conviction and with its conclusion that there was no reversible sentencing phase error,” said defense attorney David Rothstein in a statement. “We look forward to the opportunity to address the proportionality of the death sentence, and we will work as diligently on Mr. Addison’s behalf in the future as we have over the last several years.”
Attorney General Joe Foster’s office declined to make any extended comment yesterday.
“We will be reviewing the decision in the coming weeks to determine its full ramifications and to consider the next appropriate steps in seeking justice in this case,” his office said in a statement.
A long road
It’s been more than seven years since the early morning hours of Oct. 16, 2006, when Addison shot and killed Briggs, who was on bike-patrol in Manchester, after a weeklong violent crime spree that included several robberies.
Then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, personally helped prosecute the case, telling the jury of six men and six women that Addison was a “cold-blooded, coldhearted, remorseless killer” who deserved the death penalty for his crime.
“A life sentence just doesn’t do justice in this case,” said Ayotte during the trial’s penalty phase in December 2008.
Addison’s lawyers didn’t deny that he killed Briggs but said he fired the gun in a panic, and that his actions were reckless but not purposeful. They also argued, after the jury found Addison guilty of capital murder, that he deserved a life sentence instead of execution, citing in large part Addison’s difficult childhood.
They were unsuccessful. A jury convicted Addison of capital murder in November 2008 and decided a month later to impose the death penalty.
It took nearly four years, until November 2012, for the state Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in Addison’s automatic appeal. It took an additional year for the court to issue yesterday’s ruling.
In it, the court addressed 22 issues raised by Addison’s attorneys on a range of areas of the case. They challenged elements of the Hillsborough County Superior Court’s pretrial rulings, the trial itself, the sentencing phase of the trial and the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s death penalty.
Among other things, Addison’s lawyers argued the trial should have been moved to another venue because extensive pretrial publicity and “inflammatory” media coverage tainted the jury pool. They argued evidence of Addison’s prior offenses were improperly introduced at trial. They challenged the judge’s instructions to the jury regarding reasonable doubt. They challenged the evidence and language used during the trial’s penalty phase.
The Supreme Court rejected all of those arguments in turn.
“With respect to the issues raised by the defendant on appeal, we find no reversible error,” the justices wrote. “Accordingly, we affirm the defendant’s conviction for capital murder. Furthermore, we conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factory, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s findings of aggravated circumstances.”
In particular, the high court rejected several challenges to the constitutionality of the death penalty law itself, including arguments that it constitutes a “cruel or unusual” punishment and that it carries an unacceptable risk of racial discrimination. (Addison is black, Briggs was white.)
The court said it assumes the Legislature’s decision to enact such a criminal penalty is valid, and that Addison’s appeal “has not established that the death penalty statute facially violates” the state Constitution. The court also said social-science research presented by Addison’s lawyers “is insufficient to establish his claim of purposeful racial discrimination under the state equal protection clause.”
In general, Scherr said, the court avoided making sweeping decisions or statements in yesterday’s ruling.
“It is a very technical, workmanlike ruling,” he said. “It doesn’t treat expansively any of the more profound constitutional issues, and it treats the more technical legal issues at greater length.”
Is it proportional?
The last issue left for the high court to consider is whether Addison’s death sentence is proportional – that is, not excessive or disproportionate – to the penalties imposed in similar cases.
Both the prosecution and the defense agreed in 2010 to leave that question until the end of the appeal, and it wasn’t addressed in yesterday’s ruling.
Erin Corcoran, a professor at UNH Law and executive director of the school’s Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy, said the proportionality review was built into the state’s death penalty statute to protect against bias that could drive a prosecutor to seek the death penalty in one case and not another.
“Is the sentence proportional to the crime and to other people who have been convicted of the same crime? . . . I think the fact that Michael Addison is black makes that a heightened issue for the court, because it’s clear that the New Hampshire legislation wanted to make sure someone wasn’t being unfairly put to death based on the unpermissible bias of the prosecutor,” Corcoran said.
The problem is that the death penalty has been so rarely used in New Hampshire that there isn’t a large pool of available in-state cases. No one has been executed by the state since 1939, and Addison was the first person sentenced to death in New Hampshire for killing a police officer.
“We don’t have that ability to compare in New Hampshire,” Corcoran said. “We don’t have anybody else on death row right now.”
So the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it would consider cases from other states, in which a defendant was convicted of killing a police officer, as “similar” cases.
Scherr said both sides will marshal their evidence and make their arguments on that basis.
“Given those standards, they’ll now argue how this case fits in,” he said.
That process could take an additional year to 18 months, Scherr said.
The high court’s eventual decision could spare Addison’s life, or keep him on death row. In the latter case, the legal battle would likely move to the federal court system in the form of additional appeals.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is set to debate next year whether to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty but has said she won’t commute Addison’s sentence.
(Megan Doyle contributed to this report. Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)