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Justices to compare sentences



Last modified: Thursday, October 07, 2010
In deciding whether it was fair for a jury to give Michael Addison the death penalty for killing a Manchester police officer, the state Supreme Court will compare Addison's sentence with those imposed in other states where a defendant was convicted of killing an officer.

The court will not, however, compare the sentence with those imposed in other cases eligible for the death penalty in New Hampshire, including the case of John 'Jay' Brooks, a white man who was convicted in 2008 of murder for hire but was sentenced to life in prison.

Lawyers for Addison, who is black and was convicted that same year in the shooting death of Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs, had asked the court to review the Brooks case along with other New Hampshire cases in which a defendant was eligible for the death penalty but didn't receive it - whether because the jury gave a lesser sentence, prosecutors didn't seek the death penalty or the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

But the court, which issued an opinion on that request yesterday, said it would follow the guidelines prosecutors had sought, limiting its review to cases in which a police officer was killed in the line of duty and the defendant was sentenced to death or life in prison.

Addison is the first New Hampshire man to receive a death sentence in nearly 50 years. He is also the only New Hampshire man to be sentenced by a jury for killing a police officer under the state's current law, which was enacted in 1977 and requires all death sentences be reviewed to ensure they're proportional to the sentences imposed for similar crimes.

That means the justices will have to look out of state for comparisons. While Addison's lawyers say it's reasonable to consider his sentence in the context of cases in other states involving the same crime, they think the justices should also consider local jury decisions in cases eligible for the death penalty, even if the type of murder is different.

'What is fair and just in New Hampshire should be first decided by looking at New Hampshire cases,' appellate defender David Rothstein said yesterday. 'What a Mississippi jury does, does that tell you what the local index is?'

In the 41-page opinion, the justices said it would be preferable to compare in-state cases, since local jury verdicts 'best express contemporary community values.' They mentioned the Brooks case but noted that it didn't involve the killing of a police officer.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said the state doesn't consider the Brooks and Addison cases similar and is satisfied with the cases the justices will examine.

'I think the decision was consistent with what most states that have addressed this issue have done,' Delker said.

New Hampshire's statute was modeled on those in other states, he said, and the court 'followed the prevailing view on how to decide this issue.'

Besides deciding the types of cases they will use for comparison, the justices also described how they will conduct their review. They will first review the entire record of Addison's case, they said.

They will then review the published decisions in similar cases, considering not only the aggravating factors - whether a murder was premeditated, for example - but also the circumstances of the crime that led the jury to decide whether the defendant got the death penalty or life in prison.

'In doing so, we will determine whether a germane jury pattern emerges demonstrating that the defendant's death sentence is excessive or disproportionate,' the justices wrote.

They won't conduct that review for a while, however. Besides appealing his capital murder conviction, Addison has appealed two felony convictions for a shooting at a Manchester apartment complex and a robbery of a Manchester restaurant. The Supreme Court has already considered his appeal of a third felony conviction for robbing a 7-Eleven and affirmed the lower court's decision.

After deciding those appeals, the court is expected to consider Addison's murder conviction, which his attorneys are appealing on more than 100 issues.

If the court decides to overturn the conviction, it won't need to consider whether the sentence is fair. But if it upholds the conviction, then it would begin reviewing other cases.

Rothstein said Addison's attorneys plan to file a motion to reconsider the court's opinion on which cases it will review. If that doesn't work, he said, the attorneys will try to find other ways to ask the court to consider the sentence imposed on Brooks, who was convicted of capital murder for hiring three men to kidnap and kill a man inside a Deerfield barn.

'We're not saying Brooks didn't get the death penalty and Addison did, therefore you should vacate the sentence,' Rothstein said.

But 'the person in one case is Caucasian, wealthy, acted purposefully, with premeditation, and was not given the death penalty,' he said of Brooks.

As for Addison, 'who's African American, a different socioeconomic class - some of the aggravating factors Brooks had he didn't have, and he was sentenced to death,' Rothstein said. 'At some point, we do believe that should be brought to bear.'

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)