The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








Homicides in NH

Between July 1, 2005 & June 30, 2013, there were 159 homicides in N.H.
The 40-year average is 19 homicides per year.
The Cold Case Unit is investigating 95 unsolved homicides and 12 suspicious deaths.
The oldest cold case is from 1966, while the most recent is from 2010.
A homicide case typically takes 1 to 2 years before a trial is held.

How New Hampshire catches killers
Why the state attorney general’s office takes point on homicide cases

By Ryan Lessard

Every murder case in the Granite State — including the most recent killing of the 62-year-old Union Leader ad rep Denise Robert — makes it to the desk of one man: Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin. In New Hampshire, the attorney general’s office is required by law to spearhead those investigations, a somewhat unusual process for prosecuting murder cases. 

How it works in NH
In the days following the Aug. 30 shooting of Denise Robert, attorneys from the Department of Justice were at the scene on of the crime in Manchester’s North End.
“I think in the majority of states, the attorney general actually does not do any on-the-ground prosecution work. Our office does, and I think that’s actually less typical,” Strelzin said.
In most states, like Massachusetts, the district attorney handles homicides, just as they would any other felonies. 
“Unlike other cases prosecutors work on where the police investigate, make an arrest and send it all to the prosecutor’s office, we actually go out and work from the start with detectives on the case and we help put together the case from the very beginning,” Strelzin said.
That means traveling all over the state, working with local police and county prosecutors. Strelzin doesn’t work alone. He has a team of usually around 10 attorneys with typically two prosecutors assigned to each murder case.
“We go out to the scenes, where the crime scene is, where the bodies are, we sometimes go to autopsies, but we don’t physically collect the evidence and we don’t do the interviews with the suspects,” Strelzin said.
Police detectives do all that. However, the prosecutors often observe interviews or sit in on them.
“The way it works in New Hampshire, in some of the larger jurisdictions like Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Salem and I think just a few others, those law enforcement agencies handle their own homicide investigations [while] working with us,” Strelzin said.
For all the smaller communities that don’t have the capability to investigate murders, the State Police Major Crime Unit is called in. And the police remain active in the investigation of a homicide case from cradle to grave.
“Every case has a lead prosecutor and a lead detective, so those leads are constantly in communication with each other,” Strelzin said.
Right now, a Manchester detective is in constant communication with Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward as they try to solve Robert’s murder.
Why do it this way?
Ever the lawyer, Strelzin says the foremost reason why the attorney general leads homicide investigations is that it’s the law. RSA 7:6 states “The attorney general shall act as attorney for the state… in the prosecution of persons accused of crimes punishable with death or imprisonment for life.” In other words, homicide. The original law outlining the powers and duties of the office was codified in 1881 and last updated in 2007.
Strelzin also says geography is key. It would be untenable to do what he’s doing now in a state like California, with the travel requirements alone.
According to UNH law professor Buzz Scherr, the most likely reason for a centralized system of homicide casework is a combination of New Hampshire being a relatively small state and homicide cases being long, complicated and expensive.
“As a general proposition, homicide cases, in terms of investigation and in terms of prosecution, tend to cost more money than less serious felonies,” Scherr said.
He says big cities like New York have hundreds of lawyers in the district attorney’s office to prosecute all felonies, including murders.
“And they can afford to do that,” Scherr said. “Even a city like Albany in upstate New York, the district attorney’s office tends to prosecute their own cases.”
But a small city like Laconia, Scherr says, cannot typically afford it. So, the best local option is at the state level.
“You get better resourced and more reliable prosecutions with the attorney general’s office doing it rather than the county attorney’s office doing it,” Scherr said.
The cost of a homicide case can range widely based on an array of factors like evidence processing, lab testing, expert witnesses and the legal expenses that go into an often prolonged trial, sentencing and appeal process.
Another benefit the attorney general brings to the table, besides greater resources, is fewer turnovers among the staff compared to the county level.
Does it work?
Scherr says there may be some weaknesses with a system like this. For instance, county attorneys have more experience in that jurisdiction.
“So they know the police officers and the departments better than the attorney general’s office, which some people say parachute in to do the homicide case and then fold up their parachute and go home after the case is over,” Scherr said.
And, at least in theory, if there was ever a scenario in which the state’s fairly steady murder rate were to skyrocket, it would overburden Strelzin and his team.
Strelzin says the 40-year average in the state is about 20 homicides a year. In his experience, it ranges from 17 to 25. And Scherr, who served as a public defender from 1988 to 1992, says the murder rate hasn’t much changed since then.
But that doesn’t mean the homicide unit is sitting around waiting for dead bodies either. Cases often go on for years and Strelzin also fields 40 to 80 calls per year about untimely or suspicious deaths that don’t ultimately pan out as homicides. They can include suicides or freak health issues.
Asked if New Hampshire’s centralized system still makes sense more than 130 years since becoming law, Strelzin says he wouldn’t change it.
“The system has worked and continues to work extremely well,” Strelzin said.
He estimates New Hampshire solves about 75 percent of homicides a year or more. Often about 90 percent, Strelzin says.
“Some big cities, they have a clearance rate of 25 or 30 percent because they get so many random murders and so many gang-related killings,” Strelzin said.
New Hampshire has far fewer violent crimes than some big cities. But Strelzin estimates about one or two cases go cold each year, on average. Even then, the case still belongs to the attorney general. Since 2009 the Justice Department has had a four-man Cold Case team sifting through dusty cardboard boxes and calling persons of interest to continue the work of catching killers. 

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