Arguments heard in Allenstown stabbing case now in state Supreme Court

Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A man who orchestrated a near-fatal stabbing in Allenstown is arguing to the New Hampshire Supreme Court that a Merrimack County Superior Court judge punished him for not taking a plea deal and eventually appealing his case.

Kyle Buffum, 25, of Barnstead was found guilty of accomplice to attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and criminal solicitation after admitting to his role in the Jan. 26, 2014, attack that seriously injured Andrea Halvorsen. He was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison, and has been incarcerated since his arrest in January 2014.

Prosecutors said he coerced his 18-year-old girlfriend, Samantha Heath, over several months to kill Halvorsen, Heath’s friend, who Buffum said drove a wedge between the couple. Halvorsen was stabbed more than 20 times in her chest and midsection in Bear Brook State Park. Heath, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to attempted murder, was sentenced to 20 years in prison with the possibility of a reduction. She testified at Buffum’s trial.

Now, Buffum’s lawyer, Stephanie Hausman, is arguing Judge Diane Nicolosi’s gave Buffum a longer sentence because she was seeking to punish him for going to trial, potentially causing the victim more pain. Hausman is asking for Buffum’s case to be sent back to superior court so that a new sentencing could be considered.

Hausman focused her argument on a specific section of Nicolosi’s statements given during the sentencing. At the sentencing hearing, Nicolosi compared Heath’s sentence to Buffum’s and said her decision to plea provided “closure to the victim.”

“I assume you’re going to appeal your conviction and your sentence,” Nicolosi stated then, according to Supreme Court documents. “I assume that you’re going to go to sentence review. And each time that happens, Ms. Halvorsen has to relive that crime.”

Hausman said remanding the case back to superior court would ensure that Buffum was not being excessively punished, despite the risk that he may receive the same sentence again. She also said it was important for judges to differentiate between giving a “discount” to someone who chose to plead vs. punishing someone for going to trial.

“Society deserves to know people aren’t being punished for exercising their constitutional rights,” she said.

But judges questioned if Hausman’s focus on that particular statement by Nicolosi was too narrow to justify a remand and whether there is enough proof that Nicolosi was punishing Buffum. They were also concerned if ordering a remand would set a precedent and cause trial judges to speak less freely.

“It seems like we’d be saying, you either script exactly what you’re going to say or keep your mouth shut because we’re going to really examine and scrutinize every word you say,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Lynn said. “If you speak outside of that, watch out – is that what we want trial judges to do?”

Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke said Nicolosi was simply explaining the different sentencing Heath received because of her plea, and that it was not a vindictive effort to punish Buffum. But he admitted he could not speak for why Nicolosi chose her sentence or made her statements.

That was enough for several judges to ask if it wouldn’t be beneficial to both the state and the defendant to have the sentence remanded, if only to give Nicolosi a chance to defend herself and to make sure Buffum wasn’t being punished for choosing to go to trial.

“If it was proven that these statement show the principle reason for (Nicolosi) doing what she did, would you agree that’s an impermissible error?” Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks asked.

“It would likely be unconstitutional, yes,” Locke replied.

Neither side touched on Buffum’s previous defense of insanity, an unusual and difficult defense case to win in New Hampshire, according to attorneys. New Hampshire is the only state that does not require a medical diagnosis of mental illness for a jury to find a defendant insane. That means jurors have broader discretion to decide whether a defendant was responsible for his or her actions at the time.

At trial, Buffum’s then-attorney Ted Barnes told jurors that Buffum had long harbored depressive thoughts, and that he essentially flew off the handle in late 2013, descending into “paranoia, irrationality and obsession.” Barnes stated in his notice of appeal that the lower court erred by giving the jury “narrow, limited and medically questionable definitions of the characteristics and manifestations of insanity.”

As a result, he said, Buffum faced an increased burden to prove his insanity defense.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)