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Bar News - December 13, 2013

Addison: Implications for Capital and High-Profile Murder Cases


State v. Michael Addison, decided Nov. 6, 2013, is an epic opinion.

At 263 pages in length, it addresses 22 issues that were raised in the defendant’s brief, ranging from the constitutionality of the death penalty statute, the jury selection process, venue for the trial and several key decisions by the trial judge concerning the admissibility of evidence during the trial and sentencing phases and jury instructions.

Addison raised several constitutional and statutory issues concerning the “narrowing function” of the statutory aggravating factors in death penalty cases, the statutory burdens of proof on both the state and the defense, the inapplicability of the rules of evidence to certain portions of the proceeding, the effect or impact of race in capital sentencing, the required process of “death qualifying” the jury, the non-statutory aggravating factors’ compliance with certain constitutional requirements, and his post-verdict request for discovery concerning emails and documents from former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte.

While many of the issues raised relate solely to future capital murder cases, some will affect many high-profile non-capital cases as well. One of the most notable of those issues is the defendant’s request for a change of venue.

At its core, the defendant’s argument was that he could not obtain a fair trial in the Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, because the shooting took place in Manchester and the community’s response (and ubiquitous media coverage of all aspects of the case) to the shooting tainted every potential juror. Many media accounts reported about other criminal acts committed by the defendant.

The defendant submitted examples of coverage in the print and electronic media, blogs and demographic reports, to show the level of media saturation in the prospective jury pool. The trial court denied the request for change in venue in large part because almost all of the media accounts occurred during the days and weeks following the shooting; very little was reported as the trial approached 18 months later.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court agreed. It held that, although extensive, the pretrial publicity was not “so pervasive and prejudicial” that it created a presumption of juror impartiality. The Court held that, even though 98 percent of the prospective jurors had indicated that they “knew about the case,” impartiality does not require “that a juror be totally ignorant of the facts and issues” involved in a case.

Another overarching issue was the trial court’s jury instruction that defined the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” as it related to the state’s burden of proof in a criminal case. For decades, the Supreme Court has encouraged and promoted the use of the “standard” jury instruction that was adopted in 1978 in State v. Wentworth, the so-called “Wentworth Instruction.”

In the past, trials courts have, from time to time, tinkered with the standard instruction, and the Supreme Court has consistently advised against any such tinkering. The danger, as argued by Addison’s defense, is that by adding unnecessary language to the instruction, the trial court runs the risk of creating the impression that the state’s burden of proof is less than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This most often happens when a trial court attempts to – for the sake of clarity – define “beyond a reasonable doubt” by explaining what it is not… as the trial court did in this case.

The trial court gave the standard Wentworth instruction, but added the phrase: “Beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that the state must prove its case beyond all doubt or to a mathematical certainty or demonstrate the complete impossibility of innocence.” By adding to the definition of what “reasonable doubt” is not, they argued, the trial court effectively reduced the state’s burden of proof. The Supreme Court disagreed, and, while reminding trial courts that variations from the standard Wentworth instruction are warranted in only “a few circumstances,” held that the instructions in their entirety fairly defined “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Another issue involves the trial court’s decision to allow the state to introduce so-called 404(b) evidence – evidence of other crimes by the defendant – in its case-in-chief.

In this case, the trial court allowed the state to introduce evidence of the defendant’s participation in a previous robbery to establish his possession of the murder weapon and his intent to shoot a police officer (because he knew he was being investigated for the robbery and was attempting to avoid being caught).

The Supreme Court upheld the admission of this evidence. It held that such evidence, while undeniably prejudicial, was highly probative of the defendant’s state of mind when he fired the fatal shot. The high court held that the trial court’s limiting instruction – which instructed the jury that it could only use the evidence to evaluate the defendant’s state of mind and not as evidence of a general violent character – sufficiently diminished the prejudicial effect of the evidence.

Most of the remaining issues decided by the court pertain to future capital punishment criminal prosecutions. The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction for capital murder, found that the death penalty was not unconstitutional and affirmed the procedures used and findings made to support the death sentence… except for one final component.

Long before the Addison opinion was issued, the Supreme Court had separated a significant portion of the sentencing appeal, the “comparative proportionality” review, because it is a significant part of the appeal and, in terms of content, by far eclipses the other two factors that the Supreme Court is statutorily mandated to review. Thus, the final chapter in this opinion is yet to be written.

David W. Ruoff, a partner in the firm of Howard & Ruoff in Manchester, splits his practice between criminal defense and civil litigation. He regularly writes the Lex Loci column reviewing Supreme Court decisions for the Bar Journal.

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