N.H. court hears 1st death penalty case in 50 years

Thursday November 15, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. -- The New Hampshire Supreme Court -- after a day of marathon arguments in the first death penalty case before the court in 50 years -- now must decide if the state’s only death row inmate becomes the first convicted killer executed in New Hampshire since 1939.

Michael Addison was sentenced to death for gunning down Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006, as Briggs was attempting to arrest him on armed robbery charges.

Addison’s lawyers have raised numerous issues on appeal, including the trial judge’s decision not to move the trial out of Manchester, where the courthouse is located roughly 100 yards from police headquarters.

Attorney David Rothstein argued Wednesday that holding the trial in Manchester injected passion and prejudice into the death verdict -- fueled by prosecutors’ arguments to jurors that Briggs died protecting the community from Addison, an outsider.

"The watershed event in this case was not moving the trial out of that courthouse," Rothstein argued.

But Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Woodcock argued that the killing of a police officer -- though rare in New Hampshire -- is not tantamount to an act of terrorism and mass murder.

"It’s not that kind of heart-stopping event, even though it’s a tragedy," Woodcock said.

Prosecutors argued that both sides worked hard to guarantee Addison a fair trial and that jurors certified their verdict was not influenced by arbitrary factors.

"This court is not sitting as the 13th juror," Woodcock argued. "Consider the strengths of the state’s case as well as the weaknesses of the defense case."

Members of the Briggs and Addison families attended the daylong hearing but declined to comment.

Briggs, 35, was 15 minutes from the end of his shift when he and his partner -- both on bicycle patrol -- confronted Addison and another suspect Oct. 16, 2006. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest.

Addison was later convicted of going on a violent crime spree in the days leading up to Briggs’ death, including two armed robberies and a drive-by shooting.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin said the justices have waded through thousands of pages of briefs and transcripts of a trial that spanned three months. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a year or more for them to issue their ruling.

If the court vacates Addison’s death sentence on constitutional grounds, Strelzin said, the state would be barred from again seeking a death sentence.

Outside the courthouse Wednesday, death penalty opponents held signs in a silent vigil.

"This is a momentous occasion," said Arnie Alpert, spokesman for the Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "Inside the court they’ll be talking about the legal issues. But ultimately, the death penalty is a profound moral issue, economic issue and political issue."

Manchester Police Officer Dan Doherty -- recovering from being shot multiple times while pursuing a suspect in March -- said he attended part of the hearing because he was "almost in the shoes of Officer Briggs."

"I felt it was a necessity for people who have been close enough to his position to be here and stand together," said Doherty.

The courtroom was nearly full for the morning session, but the crowd thinned out in the afternoon. Typically, a hearing before the justices lasts a half an hour.

Rothstein also told the court Addison may not have faced the ultimate penalty if jurors had been allowed to hear his assertions that he did not intend to kill a Manchester police officer in a dark alley six years ago.

"Addison said he did not act purposely," Rothstein said, noting that he repeated the assertion nearly two dozen times. "He maintained that position under intense questioning."

Assistant Attorney General Peter Hinckley countered that the trial judge was well within her discretion in keeping the statement out of the record because it was inherently unreliable and rife with lies.

The justices peppered the lawyers with questions, but the tenor of the arguments was even, calm and dispassionate.

New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Attorney Barbara Keshen thought they were too dispassionate.

"The dispassion might be what’s necessary," Keshen said. "But it lacks the core understanding that what we’re talking about is executing a human being."


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