State House Alert, February 8, 2015

Lawmakers will hear testimony this week on four worthy crime bills:

    Please come to the hearings
  • HB 605 to restore sentencing discretion to judges,
  • SB 124 to streamline the felony trial process and save money
  • HR 10 to reinvestigate the case against an inmate who may be innocent,
  • HB 653 to deter the rampant vigilantism against some ex-offenders and their families. Key meetings and Hearings,

Monday, Feb. 9, the Interbranch Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice meets at 1:30 p.m. in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building, unless a blizzard cancels the event. This important board is chaired by Judge Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the Superior Courts, an advocate for drug courts and mental health courts that divert people from jails and prisons but hold them closely accountable for making healthy, law abiding choices. I don’t know the agenda, but previous sessions have been fascinating. Among them the experts and policy makers in this blue ribbon group are savvy on just about every important innovation, class action suit, and trend affecting our prisons, courts, jails, correctional programs and law enforcement.

Tuesday, Feb. 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee reviews SB 124 to try all felonies and related charges against the same defendant in Superior Court. The public hearing is at 9 a.m. in Room 100 of the State House. Chief Justice Nadeau gave a powerful sales pitch for this proposal at a meeting of the Interbranch Crime Council this fall. She argued the policy might speed a typical case by three or four months, reduce the brinksmanship in plea bargaining, yield more equitable outcomes, and save the counties money on pretrial incarceration at jails. Lawmakers serving on Nadeau’s board co-sponsored the bill on behalf of the judiciary. Its backers are a well respected and bipartisan group, which bodes well for the legislation. The bill would phase in the new procedures one or two counties at a time. A select team of prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers helped to plan the reform.

Also on Feb. 10 the House Criminal Justice Committee hears comments on HB 605 to abolish mandatory minimum sentences. The hearing is at 10 a.m. in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building. The intent of the bill is laudable. These draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws cause cellblock crowding and spur prison construction all over the country. But we suspect the bill got glitched by a misunderstanding in Legislative Services when it was drafted. Not to worry, we will ask House members to amend HB 605 into a very similar bill, SB 197, which would also abolish mandatory minimum sentences. That perfectly acceptable legislation has its Senate Judiciary hearing Feb. 17 at 10 a.m. in Room 100 of the State House. 

On Thursday, Feb. 12, there is a 3 p.m. hearing on HB 653 to post a warning against vigilantism on the sex offender Internet registry and make visitors to the website read that disclaimer before viewing any mug shots. The meeting is before House Criminal Justice in Room 204 of the LOB.  The Department of Safety already displays a disclaimer on the public registry, but nobody has to read it, and the warning against harassment and stalking is in six-point type. HB 653 requires that warning as a matter of law and enhances the penalties for vigilantism by adding the aggravating factor of a misdemeanor to the existing penalties for what, in effect, constitutes a hate crime against registrants, their loved ones or their landlords. A registered sex offender was murdered in Keene a year ago, and an innocent farmer was bludgeoned six weeks earlier in nearby Westmoreland by a man who was probably looking for the registrant across the street and didn’t know what either man looked like. Lawrence Trant repeatedly stabbed a registered sex offender several years ago in Concord and tried to burn down an apartment building that housed seven registrants, along with many completely innocent tenants. A  Canadian vigilante used the public roster in neighboring Maine to find and murder two registrants at their front doors before taking his own life. Neighbors falsely accused a Hooksett registrant of sexually abusing his nine-year-old niece in public view in his own yard so they could send him to prison or drive him out of town. I’ve talked to that niece and she is quite sure she was never molested.

Also at 3 p.m. next Thursday, Feb. 12, the House Judiciary Committee will vet an unusual bill asking the AG’s office to employ an independent attorney to review the evidence, old and new, against Prisoner Chad Evans, who was convicted of killing a child. The public hearing for HR10 is in Room 208 of the LOB. We at Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform think there is good reason to take a second look at this case, because Evans may be innocent.  A private investigator published a book about the case, noting that the girl died with her own blood under all her fingernails. It was not the blood of Chad Evans, her presumed attacker.  More recently, supporters of Chad have reviewed the victim’s autopsy carefully and have found that the deceased child had a serious heart malformation the jury knew nothing about. Photos taken during the period of alleged abuse, which the jury never saw, show a girl free of apparent injuries. Medical personnel who interacted with her during that period failed to notice signs of mistreatment either. In short, the child may have died of natural causes. HR10, by the way, is not one of those dubious bills of address to create an appeals court of lawmakers above the Supreme Court. But the legislation would require the warden to let Evans take a polygraph test he asked for. To the best of our knowledge, New Hampshire is about the only state that is blocking an inmate from taking a requested polygraph to help show his innocence. It is our intent to seek legislation next year to study the whole problem of wrongful convictions. Many prisoners, we believe, may have done something wrong. But it was not precisely what they were convicted for. Others may be innocent of all charges.

By Chris Dornin, founder, 603-620-7946,