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Christopher Gribble is led to prison from Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua, New Hampshire Friday, March 25, , 2011. (AP Photo/POOL/Don Himsel)
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lawyers answer Gribble queries

HUDSON – In the aftermath of Christopher Gribble’s conviction for first-degree murder, questions still linger about the trial.

How could his lawyers represent a man they knew was guilty?

Did Gribble plead insanity because Steven Spader had already been convicted?

Is there a better system than having a jury of laymen defining “insanity” in a murder trial?

On Monday, three Nashua lawyers agreed to tackle those questions in an online Telegraph forum.

“Insanity is an extremely difficult defense,” said Roger “Rusty” Chadwick, the most recent prosecutor-turned defense attorney on the panel. “It is rarely successful, probably because there were several high-profile cases in the ’70s that caused much of the public to be immediately skeptical with the idea.”

Chadwick was joined online by Kent Barker and Chuck Keefe, all of whom have argued cases from both sides of the courtroom. All three are Nashua defense attorneys who previously worked as county or state prosecutors.

One reader asked the lawyers just how difficult a job Gribble’s public defenders, Donna Brown and Matthew Hill, inherited when they were assigned his case. The answer was, not much of a chance, according to the attorneys.

“The crime was so heinous that any jury would have been waiting to convict him,” Keefe said. “Gribble’s defense attorneys had an impossible task before them, and they did all they could. But I don’t think any amount of lawyering or expert testimony would have changed the verdict.”

None of the lawyers would have relished defending Gribble or Spader, given the horrific nature of the crime, but all agreed that every single defendant deserves the best possible legal defense.

In Gribble’s case, insanity may have been the best defense, even if it was futile.

“The whole reason for the insanity defense is to provide for a defense where the defendant is incapable of forming a criminal intent. Those situations are rare,” Barker said. “The example I like to use is the hypothetical of the person who thinks he is Napoleon and kills a person he thinks is Wellington and is out to kill him. He is so disassociated with reality that he cannot form a criminal intent.

“In this case, there was no such indication of disassociation, just narcissism and self-centeredness,” Barker said.

Gribble spent 11 hours over three days on the stand at his own trial. Keefe said Gribble’s testimony likely showed the jury just how sane he is.

“Gribble’s testimony sealed his fate with the jury. He came across as a monster,” Keefe said. “More than that, his testimony that he wanted to attack his mother while she testified but was able to control himself showed the jury that his actions weren’t the product of a mental disease or defect. That being said, to have any hope of a successful verdict, the jury needed to hear from him.”

In New Hampshire, it is up to jurors to decide for themselves what is insanity.

“I wonder what type of demeanor an accused would have to portray on the stand and in court to have a chance with the insanity defense,” Chadwick said. “I believe that Charles Manson has become the informal standard for what the public expects an insane person to do or say. If a jury does not see a ‘Manson-like’ figure who is still drooling and spitting in court, then they are skeptical.”

It’s not unusual that Spader didn’t plead insanity even though there was lots of testimony about his “euphoria” following the attack, which strikes some people as “more insane.”

“I understand how one might see that, but it doesn’t relate to the insanity standard used in New Hampshire courts,” Keefe said. “That euphoria surely shows a sociopath, and possibly someone who is evil, but it doesn’t readily relate to legal insanity.”

One reader commented what was “insane” about the trial was a panel of laymen defining what criminal insanity is, since state law doesn’t provide a specific test.

“That is precisely what makes this country great. We all make judgments every day, and our human experiences are precisely what qualifies us to be jurors,” Chadwick said. “Experts are only aids. Would you want your fate to be decided only by an expert?”

The attorneys agreed that Spader’s conviction last year likely influenced Gribble’s decision to admit to his role in the crimes and plead insanity.

“Gribble had a preview of what was going to happen if he didn’t plead insanity, and so one might think that his only hope or chance was to plead insanity,” Keefe said.

“I think Gribble was absolutely influenced by the Spader trial going first,” Barker said. “He saw what did not work and, I assume, the anger generated by the display of the detailed evidence.”

The jury’s foreman, Barry Gifford, 50, of Bedford, was very careful to look directly at Gribble as he read out the guilty verdicts for each of the six charges. Keefe said that is not unusual from juries that return guilty verdicts in murder cases.

“That’s somewhat common in murder cases. I had several verdicts where the entire jury stared at the defendant when they found him guilty, and then again as each one of them asked to give an individual answer of ‘guilty,’” he said.

That’s probably deserved, given the gruesome evidence about Kimberly Cates’ murder and the attack on Jaimie Cates that the jury was shown and listened to day after day.

“Can you imagine sitting through that trial day after day? What a burden for all involved,” Chadwick said.

“I think the ability to say ‘guilty’ is the biggest catharsis for a juror after suffering through that kind of evidence,” Keefe said.

Barker indicated it was good to see the legal system work as it is supposed to.

“This case cast a pall over all of us in the community. We had to wonder if any of us was safe. Seeing them get a fair trial and then get the punishment they deserve is, in a way, healing,” Barker said. “I recall the courage of Jaimie and her Dad, the heroism of (Milford police) Sgt. (Kevin) Furlong doing his duty with a separated shoulder, not the horror of the crime. Perhaps we all can move on after this?”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or