The Crucial Coolidge Case
The story of Edward Coolidge and how it changed legal precedent and public policy
Illustration by Victoria Marcelino
The shock of President John Kennedy’s assassination was fresh, only 50 days old, when New Hampshire was rocked by another, more personal, random and horrific murder. The case remains one of the state’s most influential. It clarified the need for independent approval for search warrants and caused a change in the state’s criminal sentencing laws.
The story itself is as compelling as the legal and policy precedent it created, but it is also marked a sort of end of innocence for residents of Manchester and the rest of the state. A 14-year-old honor student from Manchester posts her telephone number at a local laundromat in order to find some babysitting jobs, but instead she is kidnapped, raped, beaten, stabbed, shot and discarded on the side of I-93. After an intense investigation, a 27-year-old bakery truck driver and former all-state high school football star, Edward Coolidge, was arrested and later convicted.
The case was appealed because the defendant argued that the state’s attorney general issued a defective search warrant (by approving it himself, not by an independent judge or magistrate, a common practice in those days). It went all the way to the US Supreme Court, led by JFK’s Solicitor General Archibald Cox, later the Watergate Special Prosecutor, where in 1971 the conviction was overturned on a 5-4 decision. Justice Potter Stewart (who, by the way, owned a home in Sugar Hill, NH) wrote the opinion that threw out key evidence collected in the case because the search warrant was not valid. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires probable cause. While most of the cases up to this point dealt with what constitutes probable cause, the Coolidge case focused on who determines it and whether that person is independent of the investigation. It ended the practice of search warrants being authorized by law enforcement officials, who were not, as Stewart noted, “neutral” or “detached” from the investigation and could not fairly determine probable cause.
Without their crucial evidence, the state negotiated a plea bargain where Coolidge agreed to plead guilty to a second-degree murder charge with a sentence of 19-25 years. Merrimack County Superior Court Judge William Batchelder (later a state Supreme Court justice) was quoted in an Associated Press article, calling the plea a “practical, common-sense approach” and explained that under a new state parole law Coolidge could serve a minimum sentence of 18 years minus time for good behavior, and since he’d already served seven years he could be eligible for parole in about 10 years.
At the time, inmates could earn “good behavior” time off their minimum sentence at a rate of 12 ½ days per month or five months per year. A model inmate could see his or her sentence reduced by as much as two-thirds.
To understand the historical perspective, says Gregory Smith, a former attorney general, it is important to remember that New Hampshire during those years had a penal system that was among the most lenient in the country, with a low crime rate and prison population that had changed little in 100 years. “In that time there was no death penalty,” Smith adds. “First-degree murder was 18 years to life,” which, after factoring time off for good behavior, could be a practical sentence of 10 years and seven months.
In 1978, after 14 years in prison, Coolidge applied for parole but was denied. Still, prison and parole officials praised him for being an exemplary prisoner and for completing college-level courses. Four years later in 1982, Coolidge’s parole was granted over the objections of 21,000 petitioners and many politicians. Parole Board Chairman Richard Leonard said he was “the best risk I’ve seen out of 600 cases.”
Across the country, the political winds had shifted to the right and getting tough on crime was the growing priority. In New Hampshire this movement had a villain, and it was Edward Coolidge and the penal system that seemed to coddle him. In 1983, the state adopted so-called “truth in sentencing” law, which requires all defendants to serve at least the minimum of their sentence and adds 150 days of “bad time” to each year that can be erased by “good time” earned. The proponents hoped that judges’ sentencing would reflect this added time by giving lighter sentences, but that never happened. One of the law’s chief architects was Donna Sytek, of Salem, then a state representative (and later the body’s Speaker and now a member of the parole board). She says “judges didn’t change their sentencing” to meet the increase.
The goal was never longer sentences. The law became closely associated with Coolidge’s release and, for the years since, has become, as Sytek says, “a permanent public issue.” Critics say the law increased the length of prison terms and a jump in the state’s prison population from 330 in 1982 to 2,766 now.
Edward Coolidge’s actions on a snowy night in 1964 changed New Hampshire and still elicits raw emotions, says crime author Kevin Flynn, who wrote several books about true crimes committed in New Hampshire, including the Coolidge case. He says, “The legacy is the legal precedent that will live on longer than the memory of the case, but crime drives emotion.”