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Jim Kenyon: Rule Change Protects Bad Cops

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/24/2018 11:48:17 PM
Modified: 7/24/2018 11:48:19 PM

In March 1990, Carl Laurie began serving a life sentence in the New Hampshire State Prison for first-degree murder. Laurie had been convicted of beating and stabbing to death Lucien Fogg, whose body was discovered in the woods near his home in Franklin.

After the jury’s guilty finding, Laurie’s attorney, James Moir, of Concord, learned that a Franklin police detective, who provided key testimony during the trial, had been disciplined earlier in his career for dishonesty. The state Attorney General’s Office had even called Franklin’s police chief to warn that Det. Sgt. Steven Laro couldn’t be trusted.

A 1963 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, established that prosecutors must disclose all evidence that is favorable to defendants, including damning information in a police officer’s personnel file.

But that didn’t happen in the Laurie case.

In 1995, Gary Apfel, a young attorney in the New Hampshire Appellate Defender’s Office, argued before the state Supreme Court that Laurie — based on the prosecution’s failure to disclose so-called exculpatory evidence — deserved a retrial.

“Laro was a real dirty cop,” Apfel, who now is in private practice in Lebanon, told me when I asked him about the case.

The Supreme Court overturned Laurie’s conviction, ruling his attorney could have used the evidence in Laro’s personnel file — if he’d known about it — to question the officer’s credibility before the jury.

Laurie eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a lesser sentence. (His brother, Edward, was Lebanon’s police chief from 1991 to 2001.)

Nearly 30 years after his case originated, Laurie’s name remains synonymous with police misconduct in New Hampshire. Since the early 2000s, the state has kept a “Laurie List,” which contains the names of law enforcement officers who have credibility issues that may prove problematic if they’re called upon to testify.

The list is a closely guarded state secret. Only the Attorney General’s Office and the state’s county attorneys are privy to the information — unless an officer on the list is called to testify.

In April, Gov. Chris Sununu and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald (who grew up in Hanover) announced new protocols that, in effect, decrease the odds of an officer being placed on the list.

The state has even changed the name. It’s no longer the Laurie List. It’s now the Exculpatory Evidence Schedule.

A more appropriate name would be the Bad Cops Protection Act.

A public records request filed by Nancy West, who works for the online news site InDepthNH.org, shows just how little information the state is willing to share with the public about officers who have troubling employment records.

The AG turned over a list of 171 officers, including 10 from Upper Valley police departments. But the list included no officers’ names, how long they had been on it, or whether they were still carrying a gun and badge. In many instances, it didn’t even say why their credibility was in question. When a reason was given, it was something vague such as lack of truthfulness, bias or sexual harassment. No other details.

Lebanon has two officers on the list — one for “dishonesty” and the other for who knows what. No reason is given. Chief Richard Mello told me that one of the two is still on Lebanon’s 35-officer force. “I don’t have concerns about that officer’s trustworthiness,” Mello said.

Guess we’ll have to trust him on that.

Claremont Chief Mark Chase told me that the city’s three officers on the list are no longer with the department. Hanover has one officer. Chief Charlie Dennis wouldn’t divulge, however, whether the officer is still with his department.

Other Upper Valley departments on the list: Newport with two, and Grantham and Springfield with one apiece. All for use of excessive force. I called the chiefs in the three towns on Monday, but none of them got back to me.

The statewide listing is far from complete. The AG relies on the chiefs in each community to supply the names of officers who have credibility issues. Some chiefs do, some chiefs don’t.

At last check, nearly 40 percent of police departments have not certified their compliance with “existing Laurie List procedures.” That’s from a piece in the June issue of the New Hampshire Bar News, co-authored by Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, and Robin Melone, a criminal defense attorney in Manchester.

“This is information that is critical to government credibility,” Bissonnette told me. “The public has a right to know whether it is employing police officers with its tax dollars who have issues with credibility or truthfulness.”

The performance the governor and attorney general put on in April gave me the impression that safeguarding the public from police misconduct is secondary to protecting the reputations of cops — good and bad. Law enforcement officers “deserve the benefit of the doubt,” Sununu said.

A conversation with Lisa Wolford, the senior assistant attorney general who oversees the list, reminded me who is really to blame for the secrecy. “It is the Legislature’s determination that police personnel records are confidential,” she said.

Unlike other states (Vermont not being among them), New Hampshire doesn’t put much stock in police transparency.

Police unions and their allies have “worked hard to make sure this information doesn’t come out,” Apfel said. “We should hold law enforcement officers to a higher standard. The public needs to know these are good people we can trust and it’s OK that they are carrying weapons.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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