MANCHESTER — Hillsborough County prosecutors who want to drop a sexual assault or domestic violence charge will now need the approval of a higher-up.
Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon said he adopted a policy last week that addresses dropped criminal charges. He did so in light of the July 23 beating death of Jennifer Burpee, 45. Damien Seace, 35, has been charged with second-degree murder in Burpee’s death.
Nine months earlier, Seace had been charged with four domestic-related crimes against Burpee, but Conlon’s office then dropped those charges in February when she recanted.
“This policy is about more than one case,” Conlon said. “I think it’s about making sure we’re extending all existing processes and resources to victims.”
A victim advocate welcomed the move, and said that any agency that had contact with Seace — a Nazi sympathizer with a history of arrests — should undertake a review.
That includes parole/probation officers, judges and police departments, said Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“It certainly seems like the system failed this woman,” Grady Sexton said.
More than half of the homicides in New Hampshire involve domestic situations, and certain behaviors can predict homicide.
Seace “checked all the boxes,” Grady Sexton said.
Grady Sexton said she is not aware of other county attorneys who have instituted such a policy. But she noted that Manchester City Solicitor Emily Rice imposed a similar policy two years ago regarding conditionally dropped charges in domestic abuse cases.
Prosecutors often drop criminal charges after they obtain an indictment. They do so for a variety of reasons — part of a plea bargain, when a witness or victim no longer wants to testify, or when a judge rules against the prosecution in a pretrial issue.
A prosecutor has the ability to bring charges up after they have been dropped, as long as the statute of limitations does not come into play, Conlon said.
Under the new policy:
Prosecutors must obtain approval from Conlon, or one of his two first assistants, in order to drop an entire case against an individual, no matter what the charges.
Prosecutors must obtain an approval to drop a charge that deals with domestic violence, sexual assault or aggravated drunken driving.
A prosecutor can request that a supervisor approve a decision to drop a charge.
A prosecutor must write an explanation whenever he or she drops a charge, to be included in the case file.
“I look forward to working with prosecutors and advocates in my office to ensure the policy’s continued success. The victims of these terrible crimes deserve no less,” Conlon wrote to Attorney General Gordon MacDonald last week in a letter explaining the policy.
The policy adoption followed a July 25 letter from MacDonald, in which he told Conlon to personally approve any decisions to drop a case. He also said that prosecutors who want to drop a case should consider whether the case can be proven without the testimony of the victim.
“Too often we hear from prosecutors that the victim recanted,” Grady Sexton said. “Victimless prosecution is something every prosecutor should be trained in.”
Victimless prosecution relies on evidence such as photographs, medical reports and witness testimony, Grady Sexton said.
In the Seace case, Burpee recanted; if prosecutors had mounted a victimless case, the defense attorney could have called her to the stand, she would testify on his behalf, and Seace would have seen the charges dismissed, Conlon said. Then the prosecution would not have had the ability to resurrect the charges once Burpee felt safe and secure to do so, Conlon said.
In all cases, Conlon said, his office wants to make sure victims are safe and secure. “That will always be our priority,” he wrote in an email.
Conlon, who lacked any experience as a criminal prosecutor prior to his election, had been on the job for about a month when his office dropped the Seace domestic abuse charges. He has told MacDonald’s office he was unaware of the decision.
Although MacDonald provided Conlon with a March 1 list of priorities for him to address, the list did not specifically call for a policy on dropping charges, Conlon said.