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November 12, 2012

New Hampshire giving lots of — too much? — attention to condemned murderer

This new local AP piece, headlined "Day-long hearing set in death sentence appeal," notes the notable extra attention being given to a convicted murderers appeal in the Granite State.  Here are some details:

New Hampshire’s only death-row inmate will have his day in court — all day — when the state Supreme Court hears arguments pertaining to his sentence.  Michael Addison was sentenced to death for gunning down 35-year-old Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006, when Briggs tried to arrest him on robbery charges.

The justices in Addison’s case will be deliberating the death penalty for the first time in more than 50 years — deciding, among other things, whether Addison’s sentence is just or was a product of passion or prejudice.

The justices will hear arguments in the case beginning Wednesday morning, holding four blocks of hearings, scheduled to end at 3 p.m.  Court observers say the daylong hearing on Addison’s conviction for killing a Manchester police officer and death sentence is unprecedented.  A typical hearing before the justices lasts half an hour....

Former Chief Justice John Broderick, now dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law, said the court, on occasion, has granted more time for arguments, citing the Claremont school funding cases as examples.  "But an entire day? I don’t know of another case where that’s happened," Broderick told The Associated Press.

Attorneys for Addison have raised 22 issues, with everything from the constitutionality of New Hampshire’s death penalty statute to the political ambitions of former attorney general and now-U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, in their appeal.

Addison’s lawyers want the court to vacate his death sentence and order a new sentencing hearing.  They stress that jurors determined Addison shot Briggs to evade arrest but rejected the state’s argument that he shot Briggs with the intention of killing him.

Before Addison’s case could reach this point, the Supreme Court first had to fashion the method it would use in weighing the fairness of his death penalty.  Addison’s lawyers argued his case should be compared to all other death penalty cases in this state and others, to test whether racial bias or other factors influenced his sentence. Addison is black; Briggs was white.

The only other New Hampshire capital case in decades to reach the penalty phase was that of John Brooks — a wealthy white man convicted of plotting and paying for the killing of a handyman he suspected of stealing from him.  A jury spared him a death sentence in 2008 — the same year Addison was sentenced to die.

But the court ruled in October 2010 that it would compare his death sentence to cases nationwide in which a police officer was killed in the line of duty.  The court stressed, in its 41-page ruling, that comparison cases do not have to precisely mirror the details of Addison’s case....

New Hampshire law requires the reversal of any death penalty imposed "under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor." That law dates to the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 — prompting states to redraft their capital punishment laws to include stricter standards and procedures....

Five lawyers from the Attorney General’s office will be representing the state Wednesday — matched by five representing Addison.

The last line in this excerpted press report is what prompts my (misguided?) mini-query in the title of this post.  I find it mostly amusing that the New Hampshire Supreme Court has to commit an entire day of argument just to sort through potential sentencing issues in this unique state capital case.  But I find it mostly annoying that there are ten lawyers — five on each side, all of whom I suspect are top-flight legal minds and all of whom are funded by limited state tax dollars — who are now needed to sort out whether a guilty murderer should rot in prison for decades under a death sentence or just rot in prison under an LWOP sentence.

Long-time readers have long heard me rail about the excessive attention and resources that get devoted to condemned murderers by courts and other public and private entities.  If resources legal resources were not so limited and so relatively expensive — for criminal defendants charged with lesser crimes, not to mention all other citizens with various potential civil legal needs — I suppose I would not be too troubled with condemned cop-killer Michael Addison sucking up all this state-funded legal help.  But just weeks ago, the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court gave this big lecture titled "Addressing Unmet Legal Needs in NH," which includes this account of who else could benefit from legal help in the Granite State (with emphasis in original):

Here in New Hampshire, the most recent estimates are that there are nearly 150,000 low income residents with legal needs, but we were able to provide low cost legal services in only about 8,400 cases — just six percent of the need.  Who are these fellow citizens who make up the population eligible for legal assistance?  They are a family of four with an income below $44,000 or a single individual making under $21,000.  The majority are women; many are senior citizens.  Many are disabled, uninsured, under-employed or just out of work.  They need the legal system to try to solve problems that involve the issues of day-to-day existence — family problems, housing needs, consumer issues, a financial crisis, denial of benefits such as social security or food stamps.  They arrive in court, on their own, unable to navigate the system.  Basic rights are at stake — a place to live, custody of a child — but there are scarce resources to provide any legal help at all.  A 2011 survey of our court employees confirmed that the “self-represented population” continues to grow.  Seventy-four percent of our employees said the number of pro se litigants has increased over time, and continues to increase.  These employees report that as many as 70 percent of the litigants they encounter in the courthouse are self-represented.

Sadly, the (surely unintended) message in these legal realities is that the easiest way for low-income person to get a whole phalanx of lawyers to become concerned with his plight is to kill a cop.  Though I am not eager to question the commitments or judgment of any of the lawyers involved in the Addison case, I am eager to raise questions about how we allocate scarce state-funded legal resources in our nation and its states.

November 12, 2012 at 07:38 PM | Permalink


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It would be a better use of resources imho to keep people in prison instead of spending so many resources to kill a small (likely arbitrary) number of the worse of the worst (tossing some in that probably aren't).

But, here:

The justices in Addison’s case will be deliberating the death penalty for the first time in more than 50 years — deciding, among other things, whether Addison’s sentence is just or was a product of passion or prejudice.

First time in more than 50 years. Spend five minutes on this case, it isn't going help the masses in NH that needs more legal resources. Yes, surely, the senior citizen who needs a lawyer will decide, oh well, let me kill a cop.

Why limit it to this issue? We can, I guess, increase the legal resources to the poor by limiting by just a fraction the hours used to defend corporations in yet another lawsuit. And, the schedule goes to 3. Wow, what is that six hours? Not even, I bet with lunch and all. Finally, lots of claims are raised. I can imagine if they didn't do that. Chances are the guy might come back with claims not covered the first time around.

This sort of thing doesn't occur in Texas or even CA, since fifty years don't pass before a death penalty case comes up. NH, bottom line, seems a tad atypical, and that has to be taken into account.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 12, 2012 8:00:06 PM

I would love for things to get to the point that the justice system will no longer be wringing its hands about which bunch of losers and dregs will get the biggest share of taxpayer money they did nothing to earn.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 12, 2012 9:10:54 PM

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