January 11. 2014 6:21PM

AG says hands full as cases pile up

New Hampshire Union Leader

Attorney General Joseph Foster says his office needs five to 10 additional attorneys over the next several years. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER COURTESY)

Early last week, state prosecutor James T. Boffetti was heading off to Brentwood where he has been filling in as Rockingham County Attorney since James Reams was stripped of his prosecutorial duties pending a criminal probe.

Then it was back to Concord to resume his normal duties as head of the state's Consumer Protection and Anti-Trust division. Waiting for him was the escalating and potentially life-threatening Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. debacle that left hundreds of residents with empty or near empty home heating oil tanks during an arctic blast of sub-zero weather.

At about the same time, a 2009 video of three Seabrook police officers slamming a drunken driving defendant into a wall and pepper spraying him while in custody went viral on YouTube, prompting the New Hampshire Attorney General's criminal bureau to reassign investigators from existing criminal cases to launch a public integrity probe of the officers involved.

More staff needed

In a department whose most high-profile unit — homicide — just came off one of its busiest years in recent memory, these and other cases have further strained the office's 58 staff attorneys - a number that barely budged since the early 1980s. It's a point Attorney General Joseph A. Foster has publicly pounced on since taking office last May as reason why he will ask for another five to 10 attorneys over the next several state budget cycles.

"I think we are unusually busy. They (staff) have gone through cycles like that before," Foster explained.

"We work hard and buckle down and get the work done - perhaps at a slower pace than we would like, but they will get the work done, and they will do it right," he added.

Prosecutors cope by reshuffling priorities — a practice they call triage — with the emphasis given to cases involving public safety and meeting deadlines in pending court cases, Foster and Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice explained.

Former Attorney General Michael A. Delaney said this is one of the office's strengths."There are a lot of major, pending investigations right now and I think that office has always done an incredible job of handling some of the most important investigations in the state with limited resources," said Delaney, who served as attorney general for four years before he chose not seek reappointment last spring.

Given the first two weeks in a homicide case are the most critical, they get top priority. No matter what else is going on at the time, two prosecutors immediately are assigned to work with local and state police agencies on each homicide, Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery A. Strelzin said Friday.

"This is definitely one of the busiest years we've had in my time in the office," Strelzin said of the 25 homicides in 2013. Strelzin has been in the office 13 years and heads the homicide bureau. The state averages 19 homicides a year.

"Until the case is finally over, the work doesn't go away. A case typically takes one to two years to prosecute so you have a constant backlog of cases. However busy your prior year was, coming into your next year you know you will probably have 20 new (homicides)," he explained.

Added paperwork

In addition, the office must respond to an increasing number of habeas petitions filed by convicted defendants seeking new trials and works on 150 active state and federal appeals a year, he said. They include the capital murder and death penalty appeal of Michael K. Addison which prosecutors have been working on since a Manchester police officer was killed in 2006 and likely will continue another 15 years, Strelzin said.

In addition, the criminal division handles several high-profile cases that have consumed enormous state, local and federal resources. They include that of missing Conway teen Abigail Hernandez, which remains an active and ongoing probe since her disappearance in October. The office also is working with the Hillsborough County Attorney's office in a criminal investigation of how a Manchester man became paralyzed with a broken neck suffered sometime after he entered Elliot Hospital emergency room to his being taken into custody by Manchester police and Hillsborough County Department of Corrections in October.

Prosecutors said it was not possible to give a precise number of total cases the office handles.

The onslaught of new cases since late fall has contributed to the delay in completing the investigation of the officer-involved fatal shooting of a suspected drug dealer in Weare last August, Foster said. Foster previously said he hoped to have the preliminary finding complete by the end of November.

But a Nov. 24 double fatal shooting of two men in Manchester and the Dec. 7 deaths of a Vermont couple on Interstate 89 in Lebanon by a man authorities alleged deliberately caused the collision in a failed suicide attempt diverted staff from the Weare case, he said.

"That's one of the problems. Every time one of these major issues come up, we all get pulled off to work on a new fire," Rice said.

Constant reshuffling

Not only have state prosecutors handling the case been diverted to other homicides, but the state police investigators working the case also were assigned to the newly-breaking homicides, prosecutors said.

Rice said the Weare officer-involved shooting investigation has taken "longer than most of the office-involved shootings that we have been involved in certainly. Without commenting on the substance of the case, I can say it's a complex issue."

Foster would not comment on when he expects the report to be ready.

Former Attorney General Delaney noted New Hampshire is one of the few states in the country that requires each of its law enforcement officers to undergo the same basic core certification training at the state Police Standards and Training Academy before they hit the streets.

"It's excellent training. And that is just the starting point. All of the agencies have their officers involved in regular training above that," Delaney said.