Addison appeal: high court hears arguments on death sentence for cop killing

Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2015
The New Hampshire Supreme Court inched closer to determining the fate of the state’s lone death row inmate yesterday, hearing arguments on whether Michael Addison’s 2008 sentence is fair compared with similar cases across the country.

But the justices seemed stuck on a preliminary point: just how many outside cases to consider.

Addison, a 35-year-old black man, was found guilty of shooting a white Manchester police officer in the head after a violent crime spree nine years ago. The officer, Michael Briggs, was on bike patrol at the time.

The justices unanimously upheld Addison’s capital murder conviction in 2013, but they have yet to rule on the fairness of his punishment. To do so, they must assemble a pool of comparable cases and then determine whether Addison’s sentence is proportionately excessive, given the evidence and jury findings.

If the court upholds the sentence, Addison will remain on track to be the first person executed by the state since 1939. He will almost certainly file a federal appeal should that happen.

This final phase of his direct appeal comes amid heightened national scrutiny of the death penalty after a series of botched executions. Legislators nearly abolished New Hampshire’s version last year, and the vote is likely to come up again soon. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, opposes the death penalty but has said she will not commute Addison’s sentence.

The court is expected to rule in six to eight months.

Lawyers argued over exactly what the parameters for the court’s comparison should be. Prosecutors asked justices to consider between 10 and 12 other police killings – or only those in states with near-identical death penalty statutes. The defense asked them to weigh 366 cases, of which 58 percent resulted in execution.

“If you only look at 10 cases, how do you know from looking at those 10 cases if what you’re seeing is truly reflective of what jurors in general really do when they’re deciding between life and death?” defense attorney David Rothstein said after the hearing. “The only way to do that is to look at many more cases.”

Rothstein told the court that Addison’s sentence is an outlier largely because he did not “purposely” kill Briggs, and because he is not deemed to be a threat if granted a life sentence.

New Hampshire is one of 29 states where the death penalty is still legal. Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin said only a few other states similarly require that a defendant “knowingly” committed murder. In other states, defendants are eligible for execution only if they “purposely,” or consciously, intend to do so.

Strelzin cautioned the court against comparing Addison’s case with those in states that have higher or lower death penalty standards. He also argued that, given the aggravating and mitigating factors, Addison’s sentence is proportional to those cases he has asked the court to review.

“We all have to infer to some extent why juries are making the decisions they’re making,” Strelzin said. “Juries aren’t telling us explicitly, ‘This is why we spared this defendant, this is why we imposed the death penalty in this case.’ But we can draw inferences from these cases.”

Strelzin noted several aggravating factors in the case: Addison had a violent criminal past, had tried to kill people before and was a felon in possession of a gun at the time of the shooting.

“None of those culpability factors appeared in (the defense’s) list of any of those cases,” he noted. “So it seems like that list was generated to exclude the very factors that the jury found in this case.”

But the justices kept returning the discussion to the question of parameters.

“What strikes me is the gulf between the defendant’s universe and the state’s universe,” Chief Justice Linda Dalianis said. “Are we bound by selection of one or the other? Or is there some third amalgam that we could come up with ourselves?”

“There is,” Rothstein replied.

Justice Gary Hicks also questioned Rothstein on the claim that Briggs’s killing lacked the brutality and repeated shots found in many other cases.

“I recall that Officer Briggs asked the defendant to stop . . . at least more than once,” he said. “That as the officer approached the defendant essentially held his hand up, it could be argued ensnaring Officer Briggs into a trap, and then put a bullet through his bike helmet.

“Why isn’t that heinous?”

But Rothstein countered that jurors had not found that the killing was premeditated, or that Addison had the intent to “bait” Briggs. “I understand,” he said, “that this court can sit as a thirteenth juror –”

“Don’t we have to some extent,” Hicks interjected. “Because we’ve never done this before.”

At the time of Brigg’s killing, Addison was wanted by the police for a string of violent crimes, including several armed robberies and a drive-by shooting. Briggs was 15 minutes from the end of his shift Oct. 16, 2006, when he and his partner confronted Addison in a dark alley. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest.

The high court upheld Addison’s conviction and sentence in 2013, concluding that the sentence was neither arbitrary nor driven by passion or racial prejudice.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)