LACONIA — "It was a job," said attorney Philip McLaughlin, reflecting on his career at the bar in anticipation of closing his practice by the end of the year. "You follow the facts, do your job and be loyal to your client. Just do your job and the rest will take care of itself."
The son of a Nashua police officer, McLaughlin graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, served four years as a deck officer in the United States Navy and earned his law degree at Boston College in 1974. He explained that he learned not to give orders in the Navy, where seamen were more likely to respect officers who asked rather than commanded. At law school he discovered his academic limits in a class on trusts and estates, when instead of preparing the required estate plan he photocopied a model plan, attributed it to its author and confessed to the puzzled instructor he could not improve on it.
Ever since McLaughlin has practiced law in Laconia with a changing cast of partners and associates, including Michael Murphy, Bob Hemeon, Jim Carroll, Matt Lahey and his wife Janice. Lahey, who joined McLaughlin in 1983, recalled "I looked on Phil as someone who had practiced for 100 years. He was a very good counselor, teacher and mentor."
The firm, Lahey recalled, thrived on a steady diet of civil and criminal litigation. McLaughlin did not shrink from taking challenging cases, including two particularly grizzly murders, and established himself as a persuasive presence in the courtroom. Dubbed "Boy Wonder" by McLaughlin, Lahey joked he was kept busy arguing appeals to the New Hampshire Supreme Court "because Phil was so good at losing cases." He remembered McLauglin as "immersed in the law" with an appetite for hard work and gift for legal strategy. "He used to say 'the college try isn't good enough' and he had a way of making people see things in ways they never imagined when they came through the door," he said.
McLaughlin served one term as Belknap County Attorney from 1979 to 1981 and later in the decade as chairman of the Laconia School Board was an outspoken critic of the City Council dominated by the "Straight Arrows." Years later McLaughlin, who counted several of the Straight Arrow councilors as friends, would remember the period as "an unfortunate time when we all behaved badly." He also served for 13 years as a member of the professional Conduct Committee of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Governor Jeanne Shaheen named McLaughlin Attorney General in May 1997, as what was perhaps the most violent summer in the history of the state began. On July 3, a six year old girl was found raped and murdered in Hopkinton. On August 19, Carl Drega shot and killed two state troopers, a judge and an editor as well as wounded three other officers in Colebrook. Five days later, Jeremy Charron, an Epsom police officer, was shot to death when he approached two young men at a rest stop.
McLaughlin, who said that "I'd never given much thought to the death penalty," was faced with demands to seek it. To the dismay of some, he charged the prime suspect in the girl's death with second degree murder only to find on the strength of DNA evidence that the suspect was innocent. Nor did he seek the death penalty in the murder of Jeremy Charron after evidence bearing on which of the two men pulled the trigger was mishandled by the state and suppressed by the court. McLaughlin personally explained his decision to the officer's father and later would remark "anger is not a good reason to do the wrong thing." Four years later, he was again criticized for nor pursuing the death penalty against Robert Tulloch, one of two men charged with the murders of Half and Susanne Zantrop in Hanover.
As Attorney General, McLaughlin testified in support of the death penalty, but in specific cases, where the evidence was in question, decided not to pursue it. Acknowledging the anger aroused by the crimes, he told the press "fury is not a basis for a justice system. Evidence is. Proof is."
Later, as a member of a commission charged with reviewing the death penalty, McLaughlin would join the minority recommending its abolition and submit a personal statement explaining his position. He recalled the misleading and ambiguous evidence of the cases he handled as Attorney General, but above all stressed the disparate sentences imposed on John Brooks, a wealthy white man, and Michael Addision, a poor black man. Brooks, who hired three men to kill someone he suspected of stealing from him, was sentenced to life, while Addison, who shot a Manchester police officer, was sentenced to death, Later he would ask why, if the death penalty serves an important public purpose, has it not been applied in 75 years?
During his tenure, McLaughlin confronted two of the most powerful and venerated institutions in the state — the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the Diocese of Machester. In 2000, McLaughlin received a memorandum from clerk of the Supreme Court reporting that Justice Steven Thayer, who was party to a bitter divorce being appealed to the court, objected to one of the judges Chief Justice David Brock chose to appoint in place of the sitting justices who had recused themselves. To make matters worse, the clerk claimed Brock sought to forestall the appointment.
Following an investigation, McLaughlin issued a report that prompted Thayer to resign rather than face a felony charge of wrongfully seeking to influence his colleagues in his own case. But, the report went further to accuse the justices of speaking to one another about cases from which they had recused themselves because of a personal bias or conflict of interest. The justices roundly rejected the allegations, but the report led to impeachment proceedings against Brock, who was acquitted by the New Hampshire Senate.
McLaughlin recalled walking the streets of Washington, D.C. for the better part of the day pondering how to proceed against the justices. Alongside the Jefferson Memorial at the tidal basin, he said that he determined "we must treat them the way we woul treat anyone else," which he said was something they did not understand.
"And the church didn't either," McLaughlin continued. When allegations of sexual abuse of children by members of the priesthood came to light, he negotiated an agreement by which the Catholic Diocese of Manchester acknowledged its failures and agreed to cooperate with the state. The diocese released 10,000 documents which after a ten month investigation supported a 154-page report. "The state was prepared to prove," the report read, "that the diocese consciously chose to protect itself and its priests from scandal, lawsuits, and criminal charges, instead of protecting minor parishioners under its care from continual sexual abuse by priests."
Jim Rosenberg, who with Will Delker, the head of the criminal division, undertook the inquiry, said that McLaughlin was the architect of the approach that eschewed criminal proceedings against the church hierarchy in favor of full disclosure and a commitment to cooperate with law enforcement. Rosenberg said that the outcome was preferable to what could have been expected from criminal proceedings. Noting that McLaughlin assembled a coalition of victim advocates and law enforcement officials, he stressed that "creative remedies were achieved by Phil's leadership."
McLaughlin also inherited the litigation over the funding public education and the boundary dispute with Maine, neither of which he counted as a success. He intervened to greater effect in helping to thwart of the merger of Manchester's two hospitals — Catholic Medical Center and Elliot Hospital — which he claimed failed to safeguard the charitable character of CMC.
Despite the issues that captured the headlines and aroused the controversy, he deemed legislation protecting physicians who prescribe high dosages of controlled drugs to ease the pain of dying patients from prosecution as "the best thing I did."
Leslie Ludtke, who left the Department of Justice as a senior associate attorney general after serving with five attorney generals from 1982 to 1997, said that McLaughlin "approached this job in a non-political fashion. He believed that you do the work, do what you think is right and if someone criticizes you, you always have a sound defense."
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