Top Five Case Files
Editor's note: The following appeared alongside the 2010 "Best Lawyers in America" list in the October issue.The Sensational, the Supreme and the Subliminal.We asked the long-time observers and practitioners of law for their opinions about the most important legal decisions in three categories.Top Five Sensational CasesMurder, sex, extortion, psychopathy: New Hampshire's criminal history has witnessed it all. In fact, ask a New Hampshire attorney to list the most sensational criminal cases of the last 50 or 100 years and the first choice is nearly universal:Pam Smart, 1990"For anybody, that has got to be pretty far up there, in terms of media coverage and in terms of a lot of issues," says Portsmouth attorney Lincoln T. Soldati. "There were even Japanese newspapers camped out in front of the courthouse."Smart was a 23-year-old media aide at Winnicunnet High School in Hampton when her husband was shot and killed in Derry. In the case that had been called "the trial of the century" until O.J. Simpson came along, Smart was convicted of enticing her teenaged lover, a Winnicunnet High School student, to shoot and kill Greg Smart, her husband.The nationally televised trial had all the angles: the teacher and the student, the femme fatale and the suggestible boy, the cheating husband and the perils of heavy metal music. It even became a made-for-TV movie.Smart is serving a life term and is currently imprisoned at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York State. The students involved in the case - including the actual shooter, William Flynn - are still serving time or have been paroled.Michael Addison, 2006The admitted killer of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs was convicted and sentenced to death, despite his claims that the gunshot that killed the bicycle patrol officer in a downtown alley was reckless rather than premeditated. Then-Attorney General Kelly Ayotte personally prosecuted the case. Although not earning the same national attention as the Smart case, WMUR-TV still maintains a web page dedicated to the case.John "Jay" Brooks, 2008Brooks was sentenced to life imprisonment for hiring killers to murder Jack Reed in 2005. Although not especially significant by itself, many cite the Brooks and Addison cases in parallel as examples of inequities in the death penalty: Brooks, an affluent white businessman, received a lesser sentence than Addison, a young black man.David Cobb, 1996The English Department chairman at the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Cobb was known as the "Pumpkin Man" who wore a pumpkin mask as he tried to lure children into performing sexual acts.Sheila LaBarre, 2006LaBarre claimed insanity in the killings of Kenneth Countie and Michael Deloge in 2005, citing an obsession with punishing pedophiles. Although LaBarre has been called "a poster child" for the insanity plea, it didn't work in her case. She got life in prison.Top 5 Supreme Court Cases"Court decisions are the one thing that has propelled changes in state policy with some degree of regularity," says Concord attorney Martin Gross. "New Hampshire politics are inertially guided and to change things around here is very difficult. Folks who run for office are not able to summon up the courage or energy to make change, so too frequently the courts force them to do it."In fact, several judicial branch decisions have had as much effect - or even more - than laws passed by its legislative and executive counterparts. Some of the most important:Claremont and its progeny (Since 1993)New Hampshire's perpetual battle over means of funding public schools came to a head - but not a conclusion - with the first Claremont decision. In Claremont the court determined that all students had a right to an "adequate" public education. Battles have continued since on just what that means, and in 2006 the court ordered the Legislature to define and fund an adequate education for all students.Garrity v. Gallen (1982)Unimaginable today, they actually once called it the "New Hampshire School for the Feeble-minded." The re-named Laconia State School closed in 1991, due in large part to the U.S. District Court's Garrity decision, which established rights including community placements rather than institutionalization for mentally challenged residents. "It changed the direction of how the state deals with the developmentally disabled," says Gross.Burling v. Chandler, 2002In Burling, the court determined that "the current method of creating (legislative) districts fails to ensure that 'every voter is equal to every other voter,' and implemented its own plan for apportioning seats in the state House of Representatives. The court said its scheme would better protect the people's constitutional right to 'one person/one vote.'"New Hampshire Municipal Trust Workers Compensation Fund v. Flynn, 1990This case helped clarify the application of a 1984 Constitutional amendment prohibiting the state from mandating that towns implement new programs or services without paying for them. "It made sure people understood the amendment meant what it said and the Legislature can't dance around it," says Gross, "but no one has had the courage to go back to court to do something about it."Franconia Notch Compromise (Until 1988)Proving not every important decision happens in court, the two-lane section of I-93 known as the Franconia Notch Parkway was built under a compromise between the federal government and conservationists. Until then an injunction had blocked the construction of a full-blown interstate highway due to fears that vibrations from traffic would jeopardize "The Old Man in the Mountains." The stone formation fell anyway, in 2003.Top 5 Cases You Never Would Have Heard AboutLaws get made in the light of day, passed by a legislature and signed by a governor. But often what they really mean, and the scope of their practical impact, is determined in obscure litigation that, although held in open court, draws far less of the public's attention.According to Mark Larsen of the Public Defender Program in Manchester, these are the cases that often define how criminal trials take place. For example, courtesy of the N.H. Supreme Court, residents enjoy greater protections of individual rights than those guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The ruling that created these greater freedoms results from the most significant case that most New Hampshire residents have never heard of.State v. Ball, 1983Larsen argued the Ball case before a court that included Chuck Douglas (who later won a N.H. seat in the U.S. House of Representatives). In it, the court threw out a "hand-rolled cigarette" discovered in an automobile because police acted beyond the scope of their authority in conducting the search. In doing so the court established the primacy of the state constitution over its national counterpart, holding that protections granted in the state's 19th Amendment were not restricted to only those in the federal 4th Amendment. "Chuck was waiting to write that opinion, and Ball was the case that gave him the opportunity," Larsen says.Muchmore and Jaycox, 2009Attorney Jacqueline C. Fitzgerald-Boyd of Plaistow says this case "threw family law into a loop." It eliminated New Hampshire's "common law" standard of allowing changes to "parenting plans" when they were "in the best interest of the child" and limited such changes to the criteria in a 2005 state law. Those were limited to situations where the parents agreed to the change, interference by one parent, a risk of harm to the child and a few others.State v. Haas, 1991This case eliminated the "common law" right to resist an unlawful arrest, instead ruling residents must submit to arrest and then raise their objections in court.State v. Champagne, 1985In this ruling the court re-affirmed that a defendant must possess "mental competence" to stand trial. Nonetheless, New Hampshire law establishes no formal criteria for evaluating an insanity defense, instead leaving the decision to the jury on a case-by-case basis.State v. Goss, 2003Goss established a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in a resident's trash, even after that trash was placed at the curb for collection, again applying a greater protection than afforded by the U.S. Supreme Court.