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County administrators in Washington state say a single death penalty case could cause bankruptcy in their county. Court costs are paid at a county level, meaning a lengthy and expensive death penalty trial can seriously threaten the county's ability to pay for other priorities. Jim Jones, the former president of the Washington County Administrative Association, said several counties told him, “If we had a death penalty case, and had to pay $1 million (in legal costs), we’d go bankrupt.” If the death penalty is not sought, such cases cost a lot less. In the late 1990's, Okanogan County was forced to put a hold on all equipment purchases, including the replacement of worn-out police cars, in order to pay for one death penalty prosecution. Last year, the $1 million cost of a death penalty retrial caused a "budget emergency" in Clallam County. Two months into the process, the prosecutor decided to remove the death penalty as a possible sentence. Washington has a fund to defray "extraordinary criminal justice costs," but counties typically receive only a small fraction of the reimbursement they request.Tweet
One of the strongest accounts pointing to the execution of a probably innocent man in recent times concerns the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989. In a forthcoming book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School describes his investigation into the case, along with a team of students. The investigation uncovered serious problems in DeLuna's case, including faulty eyewitness testimony and the police's failure to investigate another potential suspect. DeLuna maintained his innocence and said another man, Carlos Hernandez, committed the crime. Hernandez and DeLuna looked so similar that their own families mistook photos of the men for each other. Moreover, Hernandez had a history of violent crimes like the one for which DeLuna was executed. The book and its accompanying website provide evidence of a grave mistake with police and witness records, trial transcripts, photographs, and more. The Wrong Carlos will be released in July 2014 but is available for pre-order now.Tweet
In an editorial supporting Washington Governor Jay Inslee's recently-announced death penalty moratorium, the News Tribune (Tacoma) said its editorial board "has grown increasingly uncomfortable with capital punishment in recent years, and we now share Inslee's feeling that Washington should move beyond it." The paper said the governor's decision "forced a welcome new discussion" of capital punishment. While acknowledging the heinousness of many crimes, the editorial disagreed that killing is the answer: "Opponents of the death penalty, including us, must look the evil square in the face while saying that execution is not a moral prerogative of the state." It highlighted the inconsistencies of the death penalty and its high cost. The editors praised Washington for only using the death penalty rarely, but said, "We don’t think it’s a big leap to go from rare to never." Read the editorial below.A welcome new debate about the death penalty
The death penalty is as weighty and difficult an issue as a society can deal with - a question that leaves honest and principled people deeply divided.
A state that executes criminals ought to regularly revisit whether its government ought to be in the business of taking human life in the absence of immediate danger, even the lives of the most monstrous murderers. Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday forced a welcome new discussion by granting a blanket reprieve to the nine killers on Washington's death row.
It was a half measure. A reprieve does not guarantee a condemned man's life; it temporarily suspends his sentence pending further deliberation.
The next governor could proceed with the execution of the men the state has sentenced to die. Tuesday's reprieves put the issue squarely in the hands of the citizenry, where it belongs.
Inslee will have to face the voters in 2016, and he's likely to draw a challenger who will oppose him on this issue. If enough voters favor capital punishment strongly enough, the machinery of death will once again begin grinding.
The News Tribune's editorial board has grown increasingly uncomfortable with capital punishment in recent years, and we now share Inslee's feeling that Washington should move beyond it.
Honest opposition to the death penalty must acknowledge that Washington - unlike some states - has applied it rarely, carefully and to killers whose guilt is beyond dispute. The few who do get executed here tend to have committed uncommonly hideous crimes, or else have waived their appeals and more or less volunteered to die.
We should have no illusions about them. The last man to receive lethal injection, in 2010, killed a 21-year-old woman after raping, burning and electrifying her on and off for 36 hours. The man who may be next in line for execution - an immediate beneficiary of Inslee's reprieve - murdered the wife of a deployed soldier, her 5-year-old and 3-year-old sons, and her sister.
Evil of that magnitude makes its own case for putting the perpetrators to death. Opponents of the death penalty, including us, must look the evil square in the face while saying that execution is not a moral prerogative of the state.
The anti-capital punishment position carries pragmatic problems, including the impossibility of further punishing a murderer who kills a guard or inmate while serving a life sentence. So does the pro-capital punishment position: In a state that rarely uses it, it can't be applied without wild consistencies. And prosecutions, trials and appeals are notoriously expensive in capital cases.
Ultimately, though, this is a question of principle, not circumstance. The rarity of capital punishment in Washington - the fact that the public doesn't bay for the blood of common killers - says something good about us. We don't think it's a big leap to go from rare to never.Tweet
Support for the death penalty has fallen sharply by 23 percentage points since 1996, reaching its lowest level in almost two decades, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. The 2013 poll also found a 10 point drop in just the last 2 years in respondents who say they "strongly favor" the death penalty, from 28% to 18%. The percentage of Americans who say they oppose the death penalty has risen to 37%. In 2011, Pew asked respondents about the reasons behind their views on the death penalty, finding that the top two reasons for opposition to capital punishment were the imperfect nature of the justice system and a belief that the death penalty is immoral. The drop in public support coincides with an overall decline in use of the death penalty during the same time period, with both death sentences and executions falling dramatically since the 1990s. Six states have repealed the death penalty in the last six years, and three governors have recently imposed moratoriums on executions.Tweet
As a key New Hampshire committee voted overwhelmingly (14-3) to repeal the death penalty, a number of legislators explained why they had changed their minds on this issue. Criminal Justice Committee Chair Laura Pantelakos (pictured) said racial inequities in the system led her to change her vote, citing different outcomes in recent cases for a black and a white defendant. Pantelakos, who has a grandson about to become a police officer, asked, “Why is a police officer’s life more valuable than an engineer’s?” Rep. Dennis Fields said he was swayed by the families of murder victims who testified they did not want another life taken in their names. He added, “I do not want to take another life; I’m not God.” House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, a 30-year veteran in law enforcement, also changed his mind, saying, “I would like to think with age comes wisdom. So today I will be voting for repeal.” He added after the vote, “It really is a barbaric practice and the time is now to put it aside, and I think to give somebody life imprisonment so they can think every day about what they’ve done is more of a punishment than ending their life.” Republican Represenative Robbie Parsons, who voted to expand the death penalty in the past, ultimately found the inequities in the system unacceptable and also voted for repeal. Rep. Renny Cushing, the sponsor of the bill, said, “I view them now as the voice of experience, and how our thinking has changed in New Hampshire and the rest of the country.” The bill will move to the House, where it is given a good chance of passage.
The February 11 vote was taken in the House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee. Governor Maggie Hassan has said she will sign the bill if it reaches her.Tweet
In Missouri, the Director of the Department of Corrections testified that the state obtains its lethal injection drugs by sending a correctional official to another state with $11,000 in cash to pay a compounding pharmacy called The Apothecary Shoppe. The officer then hand delivers the drug to the department. At a legislative hearing on February 10, George Lombardi of the DOC said pentobarbital was obtained in Oklahoma by paying in cash in order to maintain the anonymity of the pharmacy. Also testifying was Jacob Luby, an attorney with the Death Penalty Litigation Center. Luby raised concerns that the drug would not be stored at the proper temperature in transport: “First, let’s address the fact that this drug is supposed to be kept frozen and not at room temperature,” Luby said. “We’ve got someone driving a drug across state lines after purchasing it in cash and delivering it to the department and until a few weeks ago, we didn’t even know who was selling us the drug.” Bills have been proposed in Missouri to require execution protocols to be more open to public scrutiny. The Department of Corrections is currently exempt from that process. Concerns were also raised about executions occurring before appeals had been settled. Committee Chair Jay Barnes said, “If we have a situation where the state is executing people while they still have legitimate legal claims in court, that’s a serious issue. I want to make sure we aren’t executing someone because we are statutorily keeping them from the finding of fact that’s necessary for the case to continue.”
The hearings were held by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability.
(C. Reischman, "DOC Hearing shows legislative action on executions likely," Missouri Times, February 10, 2014). See Lethal Injection and Recent Legislation.Tweet
Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced on February 11 that he would issue a reprieve for any death penalty case that reaches his desk. He said he does not intend to commute the sentences of the nine men on the state's death row, but his action will ensure that no executions occur while he is governor. In his press conference announcing the decision, Inslee said, "Equal justice under the law is the state's primary responsibility. And in death penalty cases, I'm not convinced equal justice is being served. The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." He also cited the death penalty's lack of deterrent effect and said that it is unnecessary when the state has the sentencing option of life without parole. His decision to institute a moratorium came after discussions with victims' family members, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials. The governor said he hoped his action will prompt a deeper discussion of capital punishment in the state.
Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon took similar action in November, 2011, saying that he would not allow any executions during his term. In Colorado in 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper granted a reprieve in an upcoming execution, implying that his concerns with the death penalty applied to all cases.Tweet
Questions about the appropriateness of new lethal injection methods have recently stayed executions in Louisiana and Ohio and caused the Florida Supreme Court to order a hearing prior to the next execution there. In Louisiana, Christopher Sepulvado received a 90-day stay to allow a federal court to determine whether the state's new protocol violates his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. He was scheduled to be executed on February 5. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a similiar hearing to be held before Paul Howell's scheduled execution on February 26 to examine the state's new protocol. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich ordered an 8-month stay of execution for Gregory Lott so the state can complete a review of its new lethal injection procedure, first used to execute Dennis McGuire on January 16, resulting in gasping and choking sounds from the inmate. The common drug in question in all three states is midazolam, a sedative used as the first drug in a 2- or 3-drug protocol.
(A. Welsh-Huggins, "Ohio governor issues 8-month reprieve for condemned inmate after recent lengthy execution," Associated Press, February 7, 2014; J. Berlew, "Hearing ordered on state's use of execution drugs," Tallahassee Democrat, February 7, 2014; "Louisiana delays execution after challenge to lethal drug combo," Reuters, February 3, 2014). See Lethal Injection and Upcoming Executions.Tweet
A pending federal lawsuit in Missouri asserts that a state law shrouding the makers of lethal injection drugs in secrecy is a form of prior censorship and an interference with the pulic's right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press under the First Amendment. U.S. District Court Judge Beth Phillips, who has already expressed concern about withholding this information from a death row defendant facing execution, is expected to rule soon on this broader problem. The Georgia Supreme Court is also weighing the constitutionality of a similar ban on releasing information in that state. States do not want to reveal the sources of their drugs because it might embarrass the pharmacists who are preparing the chemicals. Under Missouri's law, anyone who publishes information about the pharmacy making the drug is liable to be sued. In 2006, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that the doctor who prepared the drugs for Missouri's executions had been publicly disciplined by the state medical board, prompting the legislature to pass the secrecy law. The paper also identified a nurse on the execution team who was on probation for stalking. The editor of the Post-Dispatch later wrote, "We believe the law is unconstitutional, and we also believe it stifles public discussion and hinders governmental accountability."
State secrecy regarding lethal injections is being challenged in other states, including Colorado and Louisiana.
(J. Kohler, "Ruling could clarify Missouri's executioner secrecy law," St. Louis Today, February 6, 2014). See Lethal Injection and Recent Legislation.Tweet
In a debate held by the Boston Globe, all five Democratic candidates for governor of Massachusetts said they oppose the death penalty for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Candidate Don Berwick said, "The death penalty has no place in our jurisprudence." Juliette Kayyem, in an earlier statement on her Facebook page, said, "I have, based on my principles and on my work in death penalty appeals litigation in Alabama, always opposed the death penalty." The other candidates in agreement were Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Joe Avellone. The current governor, Deval Patrick, has also said, "I am philosophically opposed to the death penalty." Earlier, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said he supports the decision to seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev.
(S. Ebbert, "All 5 Democratic gubernatorial candidates oppose death penalty for Marathon bomb suspect," Boston Globe, February , 2014). See New Voices and Federal Death Penalty.Tweet
On February 5, Texas is scheduled to execute Suzanne Basso. Basso would become the 14th woman executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Basso is confined to a wheel chair and has a history of mental illness. Basso was convicted of murdering a mentally disabled man, ostensibly for insurance money. Others convicted in the offense did not receive the death penalty. A recent article in the Arizona Republic noted an unusually high number of captial prosecutions in that state. There are 2 women on Arizona's death row and 3 more are facing capital trials or re-trials. Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, explained the low number of women on death row nationally: “The death penalty is mostly about crimes against strangers. That really frightens people,” she said. Those crimes often include rapes and robberies, “and women just don’t do those kind of crimes.”Tweet
According to a new report released on February 4 by the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 people had their criminal convictions dismissed in 2013, the most for any year in the Registry, which begins with 1989. Those exonerated last year included Reginald Griffin, who had been sentenced to death in Missouri 30 years ago. Griffin became the 143rd person on DPIC's Innocence List, which includes those exonerated from death row since 1973. The National Registry has recorded 1,304 exonerations since 1989. Of those exonerated in 2013, 31% were in cases where no crime actually occurred; 17% occurred in cases in which the defendant had pled guilty. Texas led the country with the most exonerations (13). Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and author of the report, noted the impact of wrongful convictions on defendants: "They've lost 10 years, or in some cases, 30-some years of their life. Their children have grown up if they had children, their spouse may have left them, their parents may have died, they have no skills. For many people, the destruction that has occurred is irreparable."
(E. Chuck, "2013 was a record year for exonerations of prisoners," NBC News; Newsletter, "Record Number of Exonerations in 2013," National Registry of Exonerations, Feb. 4, 2014). See Innocence and Studies.Tweet
Prison officials in Texas are reviewing policies currently requiring all death row inmates to be isolated one to a cell for 23 hours a day. Executions in Texas are carried out in Huntsville, and the local chapter of the correctional officers' union supports changing death-row practices. Chapter president Lance Lowry said, “The correctional officers and taxpayers would benefit from an easing of the current policies. Most death row offenders could be housed two to a cell. Some of them could be given work privileges and allowed to watch TV. An inmate who has nothing to lose is a dangerous inmate.” Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of California's San Quentin prison, which houses the country's largest death row, agreed, “When inmates are permanently and automatically housed in highly restrictive environments — as they are in Texas — it is more difficult to control their behavior. To make matters worse, complete idleness breeds mental illness, causing inmates to act out and putting correctional officers at risk.” The correctional officers' union is one of a dozen organizations that support easing the restrictions. The others include mental health organizations, the Texas Defender Service, and several religious groups. The coalition is asking prison officials to allow death row inmates contact visits with family members, communal recreation, religious services, and work assignments.
(M. Ward, "Should Texas death row inmates have more privileges?," Austin American-Statesman, January 29, 2014). See Death Row and Time on Death Row.Tweet
On January 30 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the government would seek the death penalty in the federal prosecution of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. DPIC has a number of resources about the federal death penalty, including a list of federal death row inmates with descriptions of their cases, information about crimes eligible for the federal death penalty, a breakdown of outcomes in federal capital cases, and studies related to such issues as costs and racial disparities. We have also compiled legal documents related to the Tsarnaev case, including the recent notice of intent to seek the death penalty, the indictment, and initial charging document.
(Posted by DPIC, January 31, 2014). See Federal Death Penalty.Tweet
DPIC recently added a new webpage concerning death sentences in 2013. This resource includes the name, race, and county of sentencing for each of the 80 defendants sentenced to death last year, as well as the names of the leading states and counties. The number of new death sentences handed down was equal to the second lowest number since 1976. By race, 40% of those sentenced to death were white, 39% were black, 19% were Latino, and 2.5% were of other races. California led the country with 24 death sentences, followed by Florida, with 15. Fifteen states handed down at least one death sentence, and the federal government and the U.S. Military each imposed one death sentence. Less than 2% of all U.S. counties (53 counties) produced all of the death sentences in 2013. Two southern California counties, Los Angeles and Riverside, had the most death sentences, with 7 and 6, respectively.
The number of death sentences in 2013 was 75% less than the number (315) in 1996, the high point for death sentences in the modern era.Tweet
The parents of a slain corrections officer in Colorado have asked to testify in opposition to a death sentence for their son's alleged killer, but prosecutors have challenged their right to intervene. Eric Autobee's (pictured) parents say that their son "would not have wanted someone killed in his name." Prosecutors maintain Colorado law only allows victim impact statements to discuss the harm that resulted from the crime. The Autobees, in a court filing quoting Colorado law, argue that a victim has the right "to adequately and reasonably express his or her views' regarding 'the type of sentence which should be imposed by the court.'" (emphasis in original). Kate Lowenstein of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights agreed, "Disagreeing with the prosecutor – opposing the death penalty when the prosecutor is seeking a death sentence – should not mean that you are silenced."
(A. Cohen, "When Victims Speak Up in Court - in Defense of the Criminals," The Atlantic, January 28, 2014). See Victims and Arbitrariness.Tweet
Just one week before the scheduled execution of Christopher Sepulvado, Louisiana announced it has been unable to find pentobarbital for its lethal injections and instead may apply a new procedure used only once before in the U.S. If the state cannot obtain pentobarbital, it will employ the two-drug procedure used by Ohio on January16 to execute Dennis McGuire, an execution that resulted in gasping sounds and movements by the inmate over an extended period of time. That procedure involved midazolam--a sedative--and hydromorphone--a painkiller. Gary Clements, an attorney for Mr. Sepulvado, said Louisiana is violating its own protocol, which requires that lethal injection drugs be obtained at least 30 days before an execution. "Just days before a scheduled execution, the State has significantly changed its execution protocol without independent oversight or public scrutiny," Clements said. "[This] once again demonstrates that the State is not prepared to move forward with Mr. Sepulvado’s scheduled execution in a manner that comports with state and federal laws, and the U.S. Constitution." Sepulvado's attorneys argue his due process rights are being violated by the lack of information about the manner of his execution, and his right to be spared cruel and unusual punishment would be violated by an execution using faulty drugs.
Sepulvado's execution is scheduled for February 5. Louisiana had planned to carry out the execution using pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. If the new drugs are used, they may be injected intramuscularly, as opposed to intravenously as was done in Ohio.
On January 30, Sepulvado's attorneys filed a supplemental brief with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging this new protocol and asking for a stay of execution.
(L. McGaughy, "Louisiana will change protocol, adopt Ohio lethal injection drugs one week before scheduled execution," Times-Picayune, January 27, 2014; update Jan. 31, 2014). See Lethal Injection.Tweet
Attorneys for a Missouri inmate facing imminent execution have asserted that the Department of Corrections has violated state and federal laws in acquiring its lethal injection drugs. Herbert Smulls is scheduled for execution on January 29, but a challenge has been filed in federal court alleging that the state's pentobarbital was obtained from a compounding pharmacy in Oklahoma, which is unlicensed in Missouri. The suit also stated the drug has not been stored properly. A correctional official, who helped find a compounding pharmacy that would sell lethal injection drugs to Missouri, said he did not know if the pharmacy was licensed to sell in the state. Cheryl Pilate, Smulls' attorney, said, "We were very surprised, really, by the lack of attention that was given to vetting the pharmacy -- finding out if it was qualified to do what it did, if it was inspected, if it was properly licensed. It seemed that there was almost no knowledge actually of the capabilities of the compounding pharmacy." In a January 22 letter to the Food and Drug Administration, Pilate alleged Missouri violated several federal laws by obtaining pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy without a valid prescription.
An expert pharmacologist, Dr. Larry Sasich, submitted an affidavit stating that the state's storage of the drug at room temperature, rather than under refrigeration, creates a grave risk of contamination that could cause excruciating pain during the execution. Missouri has maintained that the source of their execution drugs is a "state secret." Recent executions in Oklahoma and Ohio have been accompanied by unusual sounds and statements from the inmates as the lethal injection was being administered.
(C. McDaniel, "In Light of Investigations, Inmate's Lawyers Ask Courts to Stay Execution," St. Louis Public Radio, January 22, 2014). See C. Pilate, Letter to Food and Drug Administration, January 22, 2014. See Lethal Injection and Compounding Pharmacies.Tweet
New Hampshire, which is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty, only has one inmate on death row--Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a police officer. Now that officer's former partner, John Breckenridge (pictured), has had a change of heart about the death penalty and is calling for an end to capital punishment. Initially, Breckenridge supported a death sentence for Addison, and even spoke in favor of the death penalty before the state's death penalty commission. However, he said his religious faith and conversations with Sister Helen Prejean led him to change his mind: "Given the Catholic view on the sanctity of life and our modern prison system and the means we have to protect society, it became clear to me that as a Catholic I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who – for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others – still lives ... in the possibility of spiritual redemption. That’s where my journey brought me. Do I want to visit Michael Addison or invite him into my home? I do not. Do I occasionally pray for him and his family? I do." Read the op-ed below.Ex-police officer Breckinridge: I choose life – for myself and Michael Addison
By JOHN BRECKINRIDGE with GARY BOUCHARD
For the MonitorWednesday, January 15, 2014
(Published in print: Thursday, January 16, 2014)
I’m a Catholic. Like most Catholics these three words have meant very different things on a journey that has taken me to places I never could have imagined and never would have desired to go.
I was born in Andover, Mass., at a time when Sunday best still meant something. Many women still wore dresses and veils to church. Men wore suits, and people still carried Sunday missals. By high school in the late 1970s the world and everything in it was more casual. I involved myself in youth group and T.E.C. (Teens Encounter Christ). I made memorable trips to Camp Fatima in New Hampshire and formed good relationships with local priests whom I remain in touch with today. My faith was active, if unchallenged.
Then, like many young people, when I moved away to college I left religious practice at home. This is ironic since the place I came to school was Saint Anselm College in Manchester, and the opportunity to deepen my faith had never been greater. I didn’t wage a protest against my religion or even actively retreat from it. Like many people at that age I just let it fade away without much of a struggle.
Meanwhile, the road before me unfolded in the usual ways it does for a young man doing the things he is supposed to do. I majored in psychology and began a career as a social worker to help people. I fell in love, got married and had kids. Then I became a Manchester police officer. Being a cop challenged me and offered me a shared sense of purpose that most people never experience on the job. It also showed me every day for 22 years the very worst in human beings.
I had already fallen away from the Church and now, one incident report at a time, I was steadily losing faith in humanity. Like most cops I acquired a tough and resilient veneer that concealed a mounting cynicism and anger. When my wife asked me how things went at work, I’d say, “Fine.” When my children misbehaved I’d snap at them. I’m sure I thought that I was leaving my work at the station, but the sort of depravity and pain you see each day as a police officer isn’t easy to shut away in your locker at the end of the shift. Instead you tend to lock it away inside, where, if you aren’t careful, it can steadily corrode you from within.
I figured I was careful. I enjoyed great camaraderie on the force, good relationships with good men and women, and even some fun along the way. When I bothered to think about it, I still recognized that God existed, but I had a hard time reconciling a belief in a loving God with the sort of things I saw in the city on a daily basis.
Oct. 16, 2006
Then in the very early hours of Oct. 16, 2006, something happened that nearly everyone in New Hampshire knows well enough to tell their own version of the story. Here’s mine.
At about 1:45 a.m. my partner, Officer Michael Briggs, and I received a report of gunshots fired in a second-floor apartment on Lake Street. After investigating the apartment, we decided to check a lead before returning to the station. We rode our bikes east on Lake Avenue, then north on Lincoln Street to Litchfield Lane, neither of us considering when we entered that alley that it would mean the end of Michael’s life and an irrevocable change to my own.
The details of what happened next are all part of official court records and are the sort of thing we have all seen too often on TV, only there would be no happy ending at the end of the episode. After approaching and commanding a hooded suspect to stop three times, Briggs was shot at close range. I watched him fall, drew my weapon and shot four rounds at the fleeing man whom I and the rest of New Hampshire would come to know as Michael Addison, who today resides in the Concord state prison as an inmate on death row.
On the morning of Oct. 17, Michael Briggs died for simply and bravely doing his duty as an officer. In the days, weeks, months and years after that fateful night I traveled on a dark, downward spiral. I hated Michael’s killer. I hated every criminal I saw. I hated the crimes they committed and the pain they caused. I drank. I drank more. I hurt my family. I hurt the friends who tried to help. When the trial started in 2008, any healing that might have occurred before that was shattered as I was forced to confront Michael’s killer, relive every horrid detail of that night under the scrutiny of the court, and watch Michael’s family continue to suffer.
Around that same time there was a commission appointed to study the death penalty in New Hampshire. I attended and listened to the anti-death penalty people carry on about the costs and impracticality of the penalty, its disproportionate application to minorities. I was infuriated! I had watched Michael Addison kill my partner, and now we were supposed to spend our money to feed this guy so he could read books, watch cable TV, and work out? We were supposed to take the risk that some judge 20 years down the road might commute his sentence? Let’s put him to death and get it over with! I testified to the committee to keep the death penalty.
Maybe I felt better having vented my anger in public. The death penalty was kept in place. Addison’s life would become that of a prisoner whose life is punctuated by unending and prolonged appeals in a circuitous legal system. My own life, meanwhile, would continue on its inevitable descent. I was living on a friend’s pullout couch and my family was crumbling. That was the bottom. From there it would be a slow, agonizing climb upward – a climb that, owing to the courage and love of my saintly wife, I did not have to make alone. When she and I sat before a marriage counselor for the first time and described our problems, he looked at us, shook his head, and spoke an expletive. We had serious work to do. I had serious work to do. The climb began.
New job, new life
It would lead to a familiar place. I retired from the Manchester police department in 2010 and took a job as a security guard on the very campus where I had begun to shed my faith two decades earlier. Returning to Saint Anselm gave me the feeling of coming home, and after just a few weeks changes began to happen. I started to be able to deal with people without assuming the worst about them. I reacquainted myself with some of the monks I had known in my student days. I began to feel comfortable in groups again. As the new guy, I was assigned to the night shift, which meant long hours when there was little activity, so I began reading quite a bit. I might even have prayed some, and I began to be drawn back to the Church. My Mass attendance shifted from sporadic to regular, and when I went I was actually an active participant instead of a passive guest.
I was still angry. I still wanted Michael Briggs’s killer put to death. Then came a new bishop and an old movie. I was reading an interview with Bishop Peter Libasci in Parable, the magazine of the Manchester Diocese, shortly after he arrived in New Hampshire. He mentioned that his favorite movie was Song of Bernadette. I had never seen it and I’m a sucker for old movies, so during the quiet of the night shift I found the movie on YouTube and watched it. I loved it. Then I moved on to 1950s Bible epics like the 1951 classic Quo Vadis. In one scene Nero, the notorious persecutor of Christians, appears before the crowd. A woman in the crowd shouts at him, calling him “a beast!” Saint Peter hears her and tells her: “No man is a beast. Look at him and know that he is but sick, sick in heart and spirit, in his soul.”
A sacred gift from God
I enjoyed the movie, but those words of Saint Peter wouldn’t leave my head. During the quiet of my rounds at night I began stopping into the Abbey church. As I began to pray more and more and to use my long neglected rosary, those words from the film worked their way down into my heart. Around this time Sister Helen Prejean came to campus as a speaker. Sister Helen is a well-known advocate against the death penalty. Her work was dramatized in the film Dead Man Walking. I entered the presentation still rationalizing my stance that a Catholic could support the death penalty. I listened attentively to Sister Helen and even spoke to her afterward, explaining my predicament. She listened and didn’t try to push her view on me. I came away still conflicted, but what had hit home were the spiritual arguments, particularly that life is a sacred gift from God that should not be willfully destroyed.
As my spiritual climb continued, so did my understanding. I began attending a Bible study group at my parish, Saint Catherine’s. There my previously naive and unquestioned faith ran up against Saint Paul. Here was a guy who had been an enthusiastic and violent attacker of the Church, purposely dismantling it as much as he could. Then he realized his errors, gave himself to God’s will, and was redeemed by God’s grace. He went from being an attacker of the Church to one of its foremost evangelists. Who couldn’t admire a man like that?
As I struggled with my view on the death penalty, there stood Paul, imploring: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12: 17-19) And long before Saint Paul the prophet Ezekiel had written: “ ‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’ ” (Ezekiel 18:23)
I took my struggle to religious teachers, to priests. The common thread was clear: “The fundamental dignity of human life.” In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), John Paul II wrote that “man is called to the fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.” The entire encyclical reaffirms the divine gift that we all have received, namely, life itself. The pope also reaffirmed the teaching of the Catechism that the death penalty could be justified only if it was absolutely necessary to defend society.
Praying for Addison
Given the Catholic view on the sanctity of life and our modern prison system and the means we have to protect society, it became clear to me that as a Catholic I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who – for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others – still lives, like Saint Paul did, in the possibility of spiritual redemption. That’s where my journey brought me. Do I want to visit Michael Addison or invite him into my home? I do not. Do I occasionally pray for him and his family? I do.
This past Oct. 16, in the chilly early morning hours, I made my way once more to the alley in Manchester where Michael Briggs was shot. It is an annual pilgrimage that many of us have shared since that horrific night. Michael’s family, fellow officers, and friends gather in vigil in the dark. Honor, love, and sorrow hang heavy in the air and in our hearts. This year nobody said a word. After a while we quietly went our separate ways. The place to which I return from that annual vigil is different for me today than in years past because, well . . .
I’m a Catholic. And today those three words mean more to me than I ever thought they would, including the loss of several friends who cannot understand how a guy who has seen what I have seen could go from speaking publicly in favor of the death penalty to testifying against it. It has not been an easy journey and ultimately I didn’t make the change. I just descended until I hit a humble enough spot in life where all I could do is ask God for forgiveness. He gave it unconditionally. As the receiver of that gift, who am I rob it from someone else? Even my worst enemy.
(This column first appeared in “Parable,” the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester.)
(J. Breckenridge with G. Bouchard, "Ex-police officer Breckinridge: I choose life – for myself and Michael Addison," Concord Monitor, January 16, 2014). See New Voices and Religious Views.Tweet
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