CONCORD, N.H. – New Hampshire’s top court upheld the sentence of the state’s only death row inmate, moving the convicted cop killer closer to becoming the first person executed in New Hampshire since 1939.
Michael Addison, 33, was convicted of gunning down Michael Briggs in 2006 as the 35-year-old Manchester police officer was attempting to arrest him on a string of armed robbery charges.
The high court’s unanimous ruling came nearly a year after it heard unprecedented daylong arguments in the first death penalty appeal to come before it in 50 years.
The court rejected Addison’s numerous claims that his death sentence violates the state constitution. Addison had challenged whether he could be sentenced to death when the jury found that he acted recklessly but without intent to kill.
“Our capital sentencing scheme reflects the legislature’s judgment that the most egregious murderers who warrant the most severe sentence under our law are not restricted to those who harbor a specific intent to kill,” the court wrote.
Addison’s lawyers had argued that holding the trial in a courthouse a stone’s throw from the Manchester police department injected passion and prejudice into the jury’s verdict.
“The watershed event in this case was not moving the trial out of that courthouse,” attorney David Rothstein argued.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the trial court’s finding that police headquarters is a nondescript building with a memorial to Briggs that is barely visible to the public. The court noted that no trial in New Hampshire history has been relocated as a result of extensive media coverage.
Prosecutors maintained that both sides worked hard to guarantee Addison a fair trial and that jurors certified their verdict was not influenced by arbitrary factors.
“We conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice or any other arbitrary factor,” the justices wrote.
Of all 22 issues raised by Addison’s lawyers on appeal, the justices concluded, “We find no reversible error.”
Addison still has avenues of appeal in state and federal courts.
The Supreme Court will next schedule arguments on a fairness review – weighing Addison’s sentence against those meted out in 49 cases around the country between 2000 and 2009 in which a police officer was shot in the line of duty.
Addison’s lawyers objected to the scope of the comparison, saying it ignores the only other New Hampshire capital case in recent history. That case involved a wealthy man, John Brooks, who plotted and paid for the killing of a handyman he thought had stolen from him. Brooks was spared a death sentence in 2008, the same year Addison was sentenced to die.
Addison’s lawyers – Rothstein and Richard Guerriero – issued a brief statement saying they disagreed with the court’s ruling and looked forward to addressing the fairness of his sentence.
Attorney General Joseph Foster said the magnitude of the court’s 243-page ruling is appropriate given the magnitude of the loss suffered by the Briggs’ family. He did not comment on the ruling itself, noting that aspects of the case remain pending.
Briggs was 15 minutes from the end of his shift on Oct. 16, 2006, when he and his partner – both on bicycle patrol – confronted Addison in a dark alley. Jurors found that Addison shot Briggs in the head at close range to avoid arrest.
Manchester Police Chief David Mara said Wednesday he is grateful for the decision but knows the appeals process is far from over.
“Michael Addison has had seven years of due process,” Mara said. “Michael Briggs got no due process. He was executed.”
Barbara Keshen, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, criticized prosecutors for spending “millions of dollars to seek Michael Addison’s death, despite his willingness to plead guilty to killing Officer Briggs and go to prison for the rest of his life without possibility of parole.”
Addison was later convicted of going on a violent rampage in the days before Briggs’ death, including two armed robberies and a drive-by shooting.
University of New Hampshire School of Law Professor Albert “Buzz” Scherr said the justices were “surprisingly dismissive” of defense arguments that Addison’s death sentence was tainted by passion and prejudice.
“The trial judge gave the state every opportunity to get a death penalty and that’s the way the court’s opinion today reads also,” Scherr said.
The last person executed in New Hampshire was Howard Long, an Alton shopkeeper who molested and beat a 10-year-old boy to death. He was hanged – still a viable form of execution in New Hampshire if lethal injection is not possible.