Disgraced Democratic legislative leader Jeff Woodburn’s domestic violence convictions have been wiped out after the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled he was denied a fair defense at trial.
“Because the record contains ‘some evidence’ supporting a rational finding that the defendant acted in self-defense, the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury on that theory of defense was unreasonable,” Associate Justice James Bassett wrote.
The state’s high court ruled Thursday that Woodburn should have been able to argue self-defense to the jury. Woodburn (D-Whitefield) was the Democratic state Senate Minority Leader when he was charged in 2018 with assaulting his then-girlfriend.
Woodburn was blocked from arguing that he acted in self-defense against the woman, according to Bassett.
“On several occasions, the court excluded evidence of the complainant’s alleged prior aggressive conduct towards the defendant, including evidence that she had tried to block or restrain him from leaving her during previous conflicts. The defendant argued that this evidence was relevant to his theory of self-defense,” Bassett wrote.
While the court sent the domestic violence case back to Coos Superior Court Judge Peter Bornstein, it also upheld Woodburn’s convictions on criminal mischief.
Michael Garrity, communications director for New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella, said there is no decision yet on whether or not to bring a new trial against Woodburn. “We are reviewing the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s opinion in the case of State v. Jeffrey Woodburn so that we can determine our next steps,” Garrity said.
Woodburn was New Hampshire’s top-ranking Democratic senator at the time of his arrest. After winning his party’s primary, Woodburn went on to lose the 2018 general election to 75-year-old first-time candidate David Starr.
“It’s disappointing that these convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court on a legal technicality,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “However, other convictions in this case still stand, and Mr. Woodburn will be going to jail for his crimes. He was convicted by a jury of his peers and by a jury that believed the survivor. This decision should not in any way discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward and reporting abuse.”
According to court records, the convictions stem from Woodburn’s violent actions related to three separate incidents. In the first, Woodburn and the woman arrived in separate vehicles at a Dec. 15, 2017, Christmas party, and the woman agreed to drive him home so that Woodburn could drink at the party. During an argument on the drive home, Woodburn had the woman pull over, and during a struggle over his phone, he bit her hand, according to court records.
On Christmas Eve that same year, Woodburn kicked the door to the woman’s house when she refused to let him inside. in August 2017, he reportedly kicked her clothes dryer, breaking the appliance, police records showed.
The woman went on record telling Bornstein that she tried to grab his phone without permission at one point during her many struggles with Woodburn. Bornstein stated in court that phone grabbing did not rise to the level of behavior that allows for Woodburn’s self-defense claims.
In the lead-up to the trial, Woodburn’s attorney Donna Brown, sent unredacted copies of sealed court records to press members, effectively leaking the victim’s name to the media.
“His lawyer pro-actively sent copies of unsealed documents to the media,” the alleged victim’s attorney—and former Hillsborough County prosecutor— Patricia LaFrance told NHJournal at the time. “I’ve never seen that in my 16 years as a prosecutor.”
Woodburn was sentenced to two years in jail after his trial, with all but 60 days suspended. He remains free on bail.