N.H. Supreme Court upholds Addison death sentence

Last modified: Sunday, May 03, 2015
The New Hampshire Supreme Court yesterday upheld the death sentence for Michael Addison in the 2006 slaying of a Manchester police officer, finding unanimously that it is comparable to punishments in similar cases nationwide.

In a brief written opinion, the five justices concluded that capital punishment has been used in a handful of nearly identical cases involving the killing of a law enforcement officer.

“The defendant’s sentence is neither excessive nor disproportionate,” they said.

The justices have previously upheld Addison’s conviction and the constitutional grounds for his sentence. Their ruling yesterday morning marks the end a first round of direct appeals, and it moves the state closer to its first execution since 1939.

The court was forced to look to other states’ handling of capital cases because New Hampshire’s death penalty statute has not been used since its inception in 1977. Defense attorneys had asked the court to perform a statistical review of more than 350 murder cases, noting that the death sentence was imposed in only a few of those where the victim was a police officer.

But the justices opted for a narrower examination, comparing only cases with nearly identical parts: the same kind of capital murder; a separate sentencing phase; conclusive aggravating factors; a penalty of either death or life in prison without parole.

“Our function is to identify an aberrant death sentence, not to search for proof that a defendant’s sentence is perfectly symmetrical with the penalty imposed in all other similar cases,” the justices wrote.

Addison, now 35, can still appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and he recently petitioned a federal district judge to review a separate robbery conviction from just before the 2008 murder trial. Buzz Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said it could be up to a decade before Addison fully exhausts his legal options.

David Rothstein, Addison’s public defender, declined to discuss the ruling, saying only that he was disheartened.

“Our work was arduous and comprehensive,” Rothstein said in a statement. “Unfortunately, while a decision states a result it does not do justice to the process.”

Others welcomed the decision.

“The sentence was the appropriate and just punishment for a violent career criminal who was responsible for the murder of Michael Briggs, a decorated Manchester police officer who dedicated his life to serving the community,” U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who prosecuted the case as the state’s former attorney general, said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers continue to be with Officer Briggs’ wife Laura, their sons Mitchell and Brian, his parents Lee and Maryann, and the entire Briggs family, as well as the men and women of the Manchester Police Department.”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin said his office had been in touch with both the Briggs family and the police department.

“For them, it’s just another step in the process of justice,” he said.

The decision comes amid heightened national scrutiny of the death penalty, following a series of botched executions last year. Lawmakers in New Hampshire nearly abolished capital punishment last year, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she opposes the law, but is unwilling to commute Addison’s sentence.

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

In a statement, the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty noted that Addison was not found to have purposefully carried out the murder.

“The courts previously determined that Michael Addison did not premeditate the murder nor was he considered to be a danger to the prison population,” it said. “Such findings are often used to rule out the death sentence. Moreover, Addison’s case starkly contrasts with other recent cases in New Hampshire where the murder was planned or where there were multiple murders. Yet none of these cases carried the death sentence.”

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