Former state Sen. Jeff Woodburn has been circulating an erroneous headline from a letter to the editor in the Union Leader stating he has been “exonerated” by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire. He has not. Two of his convictions were overturned and remanded for a new trial. The others were affirmed.
As such, he stands in the shoes he stood in before the trial, still charged with those crimes, not absolved of them. “Exoneration” means that, after consideration of all the facts, one is found innocent. This is not the case here. According to the court’s own opinion, all the facts have not yet been considered because he should have been able to argue self-defense for biting the victim, so, as a result, the matter remains unresolved. Although the presumption of innocence now reattaches, a jury, with all the facts except his self-defense theory, convicted him once. Now knowing how the evidence plays out, a jury will have to believe that the assault and battery was justified in order to avoid the imminent threat of severe bodily harm – a tall order indeed.
With my criminal defense appellate attorney hat on, I understand the elation of the New Hampshire criminal defense bar. The New Hampshire court has just set a new precedent for a self-defense theory that permits a person exiting a motor vehicle during a domestic dispute, under some circumstances, to batter the remaining occupant until she gives him a cell phone. It will undoubtedly become known as “The Woodburn Defense,” which I suspect is not the kind of notoriety the former senator had initially hoped for. Nonetheless, he ought to be awarded an honorary law degree for doing better than any appellate attorney could have done in winning the most critical portion of his appeal.
However, Woodburn is truly at a pivotal juncture. This development could be a real gift if he opens his eyes to its potential. It allows him to turn the clock back and start again if he is able to recognize it – and on a path to redemption rather than perdition. The state need not try him again, but they likely will need a solid reason to decline. The best reason Woodburn could give them would be to acknowledge his responsibility for the hurt he has caused, apologize to his victim, and voluntarily seek rehabilitation in a batterer’s program. As a Democratic Party leader, he once had the respect of the survivor community. If it is at all possible again, this would not only be the first step toward regaining it, but it would cast him as a different kind of role model – one that stands for the prospect of a path forward for those who choose accountability. That would be a true and lasting victory to chirp about rather than the misleading “exoneration” trope.
While he is at it, Woodburn might also want to consider apologizing to his former senatorial constituent,s who he has caused to be saddled with two successive draconian right-wingers because he failed to step down while this matter was pending. Despite having been a huge supporter of his, as Vice Chairman of the Coos County Democratic Committee at the time these charges surfaced, I called for his resignation and helped recruit a replacement candidate. I believed a Democrat could never be elected with a pending open domestic abuse charge. That was the right call. Had Woodburn put the good of his party and his constituents before his personal political interests, we might not have found ourselves in the predicament today of having a state Sen. in Carrie Gendreau who thinks her job is to foist her personal religious views upon the rest of us. Doing the right thing back then could have paved the way for the excellent candidate we had recruited, a popular businesswoman who would undoubtedly have held on to the seat for a couple of terms.
Consequently, Woodburn’s appeals victory could be the gift horse he should not look in the mouth, but one he should seize by taking the long view. New Hampshire people have a tremendous capacity to forgive a contrite heart. This is his chance to be remembered for something much more important than “the right to bite.”