One death penalty trial is under way and another is about to start in New Hampshire, a state that last executed someone in 1939, has no one on death row and has no death chamber.
The first trial began Sept. 8 and involves John "Jay" Brooks, a millionaire businessman accused of orchestrating the 2005 kidnapping and murder of someone whom Brooks believed had stolen from him.
In the other case, jury selection was to begin Monday in the trial of Michael "Stix" Addison, who is charged with fatally shooting a Manchester police officer in 2006.
Death penalty opponents hope the simultaneous trials will focus attention on their cause, though they are not planning another attempt to repeal the state's capital murder law when the state Legislature convenes in January.
Both the state House and Senate voted to repeal the death penalty in 2000, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. Last year, under the threat of a veto from Gov. John Lynch, the bill failed by 12 votes in the House.
New Hampshire's narrow capital murder law applies to a half dozen crimes, including killing a police officer, murder for hire and killing during a kidnapping. Prisoners who kill another while serving a life sentence, murder during a rape, and certain drug crimes also qualify.
"It's extremely rare for New Hampshire to have a homicide that qualifies as a death penalty case," said Michael Ramsdell, a former head of the attorney general's homicide division.
No one has been executed in nearly 70 years, and the gallows at the state prison were dismantled long ago. The law now calls for lethal injection.
The most recent convictions came in 1959, when two men were sentenced to death for murdering a Rhode Island businessman, but their lives were spared by a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held death penalty laws as then written unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court allowed the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. States have used the practice to varying degrees, with some continuing to outlaw the practice or not executing anyone since then, and Texas on the other end, accounting for a third of modern U.S. executions.
Since 1976, New Hampshire prosecutors have brought capital murder charges in three cases. In one, the charge was reduced to first-degree murder before trial; in another, charges were reduced for two defendants and dismissed for a third due to lack of evidence.
In the most recent case, a defendant pleaded guilty to capital murder in a deal in which he avoided facing execution for fatally shooting an Epsom police officer in 1997.
Such cases are rare not only because the state's capital murder law is narrow, but because its first-degree murder law is broad, said Ramsdell, who was involved in prosecuting the last two capital murder cases. And New Hampshire just doesn't have that many murders to begin with, he said.
With so few cases going to trial, and none since the law was last amended, neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers have an established formula for handling such cases.
"There are challenges that can be made to New Hampshire's statute and process that have never actually been decided by either the New Hampshire Supreme Court or a federal court," said Ramsdell. "Unlike places like Texas or Florida or places where there are far more executions and a lot of the law has been tested already by the highest courts, in New Hampshire you really have a pretty clean slate."
Richard McNamara, a former prosecutor, was appointed to represent the defendant in a 1982 murder-for-hire case. He remembers well the weighty responsibility of the case, which ended with his client being acquitted of a lesser charge.
"At every step you can't help but think of the magnitude of what you're doing," he said. "I can remember waking up in the middle of the night wondering what would happen if I was actually looking at a death penalty stage of a trial."
Having two concurrent cases now is just a coincidence, he said, but interesting, given that New Hampshire has narrowed its law over the years and the Legislature has moved closer to abolishing it.
"It will be very interesting to see what the population thinks of all this," he said.
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