But as the state grapples with the likelihood that the Legislature will vote this month to override a gubernatorial veto and repeal the death penalty, Addison looms large on both sides of the debate. He is a black man in an almost all-white state who killed a police officer and father of two, and who was sentenced to death weeks after a white millionaire also facing the death penalty was given life in prison. In the philosophical clash over ethics and justice, Addison is a brutal fact.
“When we talk about the death penalty in the abstract, there’s a growing movement toward abolition because of concerns about fairness, accuracy, discrimination, and cruelty,” Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed said. “But on a granular level, in an individual case, it gets complicated.”
Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs was an hour from the end of his shift in the early morning of Oct. 16, 2006, patrolling the east side of the city on his bike, when the call came in: a gunshot fired during a domestic incident in an apartment. He and his partner pedaled to the scene.
The outcry over Briggs’s death swept New Hampshire. His funeral procession wound for miles through downtown Manchester, thousands of police officers escorting a hearse and a riderless horse into a baseball stadium filled with hundreds of civilians, where, according to local media, his casket was laid on home plate.
His killing sparked heated debate over capital punishment. Then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte announced she’d seek the death penalty, and legislators earmarked a budget for the case bigger than her office’s entire litigation budget for that fiscal year, legislators said at the time. Then-Governor John Lynch called the killing of Briggs a crime that “strikes at the very heart and fabric of our society.”
The state hadn’t executed anyone since 1939. Two men were sentenced to death in 1959, but their lives were spared when the US Supreme Court struck down state death penalty laws in 1972. The last time the death penalty was sought before Addison was in a 1997 killing of an Epsom police officer, but that case ended in a plea arrangement that allowed the defendant to avoid execution. Execution was rarely pursued and hotly contested when it was.
New Hampshire’s death penalty statute can only be applied to certain types of murders, including the murder of an on-duty police officer or judge, murder for hire, murder connected to a kidnapping, and murder during a rape. Bills aiming to abolish capital punishment have come before the Legislature nearly every session for the past two decades, and at times, repeal advocates have come close to success.
In 2000, the House and Senate both passed legislation to end the death penalty, only to see it vetoed by then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen. In 2014, repeal legislation failed on a tie vote in the state Senate. Last year, current Governor Chris Sununu vetoed a bill identical to House Bill 455.
Today, though, the death penalty seems poised to fall. The House and Senate both passed the current bill, and while Sununu vetoed it May 3, the Legislature appears for the first time to have enough votes to override the veto. The House is expected to vote on it Thursday. If that override passes, the Senate is expected to vote the following week.
The repeal would not be retroactive, and so it would not directly affect Addison’s case, though legal experts and precedent suggest the courts would not allow him to be executed if New Hampshire no longer had the death penalty.
Still, Addison has figured prominently in the public dialogue. When Sununu vetoed the repeal bill, he did so from inside the Manchester Police Athletic League Officer Michael Briggs Community Center, blocks from where Briggs was killed, flanked by police officers and Briggs’s family.
“This is common sense,” Sununu said. “New Hampshire has always exercised great prudence, great responsibility, in its application of the death penalty. I firmly see, along with many folks across this state, this bill is an injustice. Not just to Officer Briggs and his family, but to law enforcement and other victims of violent crime across the state.”
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