John Breckinridge is a Catholic. He’s also a former Manchester police officer whose partner Michael Briggs was shot and killed in the line of duty. In the January/February 2014 issue of Parable, Breckinridge shares the story of how he went from speaking publicly in favor of the death penalty to testifying against it.
In 2008, while Michael Addison was on trial for killing Officer Briggs, the New Hampshire legislature established the Commission to Study the Death Penalty. Of his opinion of the death penalty at the time, Breckinridge wrote:
“I was infuriated! I 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.”
Yet after reading an interview with Bishop Libasci, hearing Sister Helen Prejean speak at Saint Anselm, and having the opportunity to speak with Sister Prejean, Breckinridge began a spiritual journey that challenged his position on the death penalty.
“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)”
I have been corresponding with a Texas death row inmate named Robert Will for two years. Over that time, I have read 34 volumes of trial transcripts, as well as many of his post-conviction appeals, the responding briefs and the various courts’ rulings. Initially, I had no opinion on the guilt or innocence of this man, but after careful study, correspondence and two trips to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, I became convinced of his innocence. For almost twelve years, living on death row, he has been trying to convince the courts the same thing.
Morally, I am completely against the death penalty in all cases. I have signed petitions, asked Governor’s to grant clemency, and been involved in minor degrees with death penalty cases throughout my adult lifetime. However, when I first heard about Robert’s case I was especially intrigued, and I wanted to find out more. One thing led to another, and soon I was in regular correspondence with him and worked closely with him and his team as we struggled to overcome the small and large obstacles that impede death row prisoners. I did everything from ordering him envelopes to helping him find a team of pro bono attorneys.
Shockingly, there is an exoneration rate on death row of about one in ten people. Taken to its logical conclusion, this could mean that at least 10% of death row prisoners are sitting in their cells now, innocent and fighting for their lives. We don’t live in a black and white world where DNA can save the day for all these people. In fact, most of the time, there is no DNA to clear or convict a person. The man I am working with was convicted solely on circumstantial evidence, with no DNA or other forensic evidence unmistakably pointing to him as the perpetrator. In fact, much of the forensic evidence strongly indicates that he is not the killer, yet, despite this lack of convincing evidence, he sits on death row, in a cell about 6 by 10 feet, living in absolutely deplorable conditions.
Once one becomes aware of the realities of death row, it is easy to see how innocent people can be convicted of crimes that elicit the most extreme punishment. 99.9% of the people on death row are poor. Indigent people are at the mercy of the courts when it comes to representation. It is not unheard of for trials on capital or other serious offenses to last less than one day, or for no exculpatory defense witnesses to be called. During the penalty phase, mitigating factors, such as low IQs and severe mental illness, are not even revealed, let alone explored. This is because of the lack of experienced lawyers, time constraints, and shortage of funds to hire investigators and experts that plague indigent and low income defendants. Few of these limitations affect the Prosecution to even a remotely similar degree.
The man I am advocating for had a post-conviction attorney who filed on his behalf the exact same habeas brief as he filed for a well-known Texas serial killer. Both briefs even contained identical typographical errors. This habeas brief was exceedingly short and touched on none of the issues that would ultimately be helpful for subsequent lawyers in attempting to free this man. It turns out this attorney was severely debilitated at that time with a serious neurological disease. However, his habeas brief stands and limits the scope of all the appellate work that follows. In fact, a U.S. District Judge, ruling on the case said, “The questions raised… about Will’s actual innocence create disturbing uncertainties…On top of the considerable evidence supporting Will’s innocence and the important errors in the trial court, there must also be addressed the total absence of eyewitness testimony or strongly probative forensic evidence. With facts such as these, and only circumstantial evidence supporting Will’s conviction and death sentence, the Court laments the strict limitations placed upon it.”
Clearly, the U.S. District Court Judge is strongly concerned about the facts of the case, in particular, the considerable evidence regarding Will’s innocence claims. Notwithstanding those concerns, because of Texas and federal procedural rules, he is severely limited in his ability to address these fundamental issues of justice and fairness.
Putting to death anyone, innocent or guilty, cheapens us as a society. What does it say about us, as people, that we kill people who kill? We don’t rape rapists because to do so would be repugnant. Yet killing people who kill is perfectly acceptable in many States and countries, especially repressive, theocratic ones. It is time that we, the people of New Hampshire, ask ourselves how we want to define ourselves as human beings. As former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, said, “We should be better than we are at our weakest moments.”