EDITORIAL: "End the Death Penalty in New Hampshire"

A recent editorial in the New York Times called for the end of the death penalty in New Hampshire. The editorial highlighted the case of Michael Addison, who is the only prisoner on the state’s death row. Addison was sentenced to death in 2008 for fatally shooting a police officer. The state Supreme Court recently held hearings for Addison, who is seeking a new trial or sentencing hearing because the original proceedings were unfair. According to the editorial, “The trial was held about 100 yards from the police department where the officer had served and the judge refused to move it to another part of the state. The jury was picked from the community that lined up for miles to show respect for the officer after his memorial service and the judge unduly restricted the defense's challenges for keeping off the jury people with their minds already made up.” The editorial concludes, “The Addison case demonstrates the extreme difficulty of applying the death penalty fairly, especially in a state that gets so little practice. The immorality of the punishment is made worse by its inequitable use. Justice will be much better served there by abolishing the punishment.”  Read full editorial below.

End the Death Penalty in New Hampshire
By Lincoln Caplan

The New Hampshire Supreme Court is devoting Wednesday to hearing the appeal of Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for fatally shooting a police officer. Mr. Addison seeks a new trial or at least a new sentencing hearing and he deserves both. His were riddled with unfairness. But in illustrating how hard it is to administer capital punishment even-handedly, his case provides an opportunity for the state to take a larger step toward justice by abolishing the death penalty.

Mr. Addison is the only prisoner on death row in New Hampshire. It has not executed anyone since 1939. While it officially replaced hanging with lethal injection as its method of execution in 1986, it has yet to build an execution chamber, adopt a protocol for injection or take other critical steps to comply with constitutional requirements. The death penalty exists there largely for symbolic reasons.

That is the major reason why supporters want to keep it. In killing a police officer, they say, Mr. Addison committed the kind of heinous crime for which capital punishment must be available. But the fervor of advocacy turned into passion and prejudice in this case, and led to palpable injustice.

The trial was held about 100 yards from the police department where the officer had served and the judge refused to move it to another part of the state. The jury was picked from the community that lined up for miles to show respect for the officer after his memorial service and the judge unduly restricted the defense's challenges for keeping off the jury people with their minds already made up.

The prosecution refused to accept the offer of the defendant to plead guilty for a sentence of life without parole, claiming that severe punishment was an insult to the officer killed and inadequate vengeance for his life.

In 2010, a state commission on the death penalty voted 12-10 against recommending abolition. But as the Concord Monitor reported about the majority, one was the father of a murdered police officer, one was the relative of a murder victim, five were former or current police officers and five were former or current prosecutors. The vote of the commission was as arbitrary as that of the jury because it depended on the make-up of the group.

The commission's majority presented the state's rare use of the death penalty as proof of the punishment's soundness. But that contradicts the United States Supreme Court, which found that a random death sentence - once every three-quarters of a century -- is "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." Its infrequency makes it arbitrary.

And there is a racial element to the case. Mr. Addison is African American and the officer he shot was white. In study after study, the combination of a black offender and a white victim significantly raises the chances that the defendant will be sentenced to death. New Hampshire's moratorium on capital punishment means it lacks sufficient data for studying that type of discrimination in the state, but there is a damning comparison available nonetheless.

In 2008, the year Mr. Addison was sentenced to death, another capital trial went forward without fanfare. The white defendant was found guilty of murder-for-hire - deliberately planning and hiring others to kill his handyman because of a disagreement - and sentenced to life without parole. That defendant's moral culpability was clearly greater than Mr. Addison's, since the jury in the latter's case found that he did not intend to kill the officer.

Mr. Addison's history - a violent, mentally ill and alcoholic mother, a drug-dealing criminal father, a low IQ and a usual role as an accomplice rather than the instigator in street crime - provides the kind of mitigating evidence that sensibly leads a jury to impose life without parole. In his case, the jury found 16 such factors yet put them aside.

The Addison case demonstrates the extreme difficulty of applying the death penalty fairly, especially in a state that gets so little practice. The immorality of the punishment is made worse by its inequitable use. Justice will be much better served there by abolishing the punishment. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has the opportunity to do that in this case-and it has the obligation under the Constitution. At a minimum, the court has the duty to provide a new trial and sentencing while the legislature and governor finally end the state's death penalty.

(L. Caplan, "End the Death Penalty in New Hampshire," New York Times, November 14, 2012).  Read more Editorials on the death penalty.