Professor: After Review, Addison Can Still Appeal Death Sentence At Federal Level

Jan 15, 2015

Michael Addison
Credit AP/Dick Morin

    

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Thursday that for the first time center on the fairness of a death penalty in the state.

Michael Addison is the state’s lone death row inmate. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs.

Thursday’s arguments will focus on whether Addison’s death sentence was fair compared to similar cases nationwide.

Buzz Scherr is a law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

He joined Morning Edition to talk about the case.

The Supreme Court already unanimously upheld Addison’s conviction and death penalty sentence. So let’s talk about this fairness review. What are we going to hear?

By statute and by the constitution in part, on appellate review of his conviction and sentence, the court first reviews the conviction to see if it was done fairly. They’ve done that and they’ve affirmed the conviction. Then by statute they look at the sentence, the imposition of the death sentence. And by statute, they look at three things. They look at whether the sentence was imposed under passion or prejudice or other arbitrary factors. They’ve done that and they found that it was not. Then they look at whether the evidence supports the jury’s finding of an aggravated circumstance. They’ve done that and they found that the evidence did support the jury’s finding of aggravated circumstance.

So there’s one thing left by statute. The court has to decide whether the sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases considering both the crime and the defendant. That’s called the comparative proportionality review.

And they’re looking at these cases around the state? Around the country?

They litigated about four years ago what counts as a similar case and what counts as excessive or disproportionate. They basically said a similar case is one where it’s the same kind of capital offense. That is, it’s the killing of law enforcement officer. And it’s a case where there has been a capital conviction and there has been a separate capital sentencing hearing, and there’s been the imposition of a sentence.

Since there’s no such cases in New Hampshire, since this is the first death penalty case in over 50 years in New Hampshire, they decided to look beyond New Hampshire, and at published opinions around the country that meet the criteria I just described.

The last execution in New Hampshire took place in 1939. If the Supreme Court side with the state, is this end of the line as far as Addison’s possible appeals go?

I would characterize it as the end of the beginning. This is substantially the end of the state litigation of his direct appeal.

So what happens next?

There’s several options. He can appeal this directly to the U.S. Supreme Court or be can file a habeas corpus petition in federal district court and proceed that way, eventually possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court. So this is the point at which primarily with some exceptions the case move into its federal phase and that litigation will take a substantial amount of time.

What implications could this ruling and this case have on the future of the death penalty in New Hampshire?

All that the court has said in the various opinions that they’ve issued interpreting the language of the statute is going to lay the foundation for whatever death penalty cases come in New Hampshire.