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State Senate votes to repeal death penalty; Governor vows to veto

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ



Monitor staff
Thursday, March 15, 2018

The New Hampshire Senate voted to repeal the state’s death penalty Thursday, an unprecedented move for the chamber that highlighted shifting opinions, even as the governor vowed an eventual veto.

By a 14-10 margin, senators moved to pass Senate Bill 593, a bill to eliminate the option for the penalty in capital murder convictions. The bill removes four words from the state law – “may be punished by death” – and requires that those convicted be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Supporters on the Senate floor argued fervently that the bill would eliminate what they see as an unconscionable practice at the hands of state government. But opponents countered with equal passion, calling repeal an affront to justice for grieving families of slain victims.

“State-sponsored execution is not justice,” said Sen. Bette Lasky, starting off the chamber’s extensive debate. “We stoop to the level of a killer, and it changes nothing.”

New Hampshire’s capital punishment law is by many measures narrower than statutes in other states. Under the law, capital murder convictions apply to a range of specific situations, including murders in the course of sexual assaults and robbery, “contract killings,” and the murder of a law enforcement or judicial officer. SB 593 would push those convictions to automatic life without parole.

The state’s law has been rarely put to use; the last execution was carried out in 1939. But dictating the emotional tenor in recent years is the case of Michael Addison, convicted in the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs.

Addison is currently New Hampshire’s only death row prisoner, and repeal advocates say SB 593 is written so as to not affect his execution. But for years, opponents have invoked Briggs – whose family supports the penalty – to exemplify the law’s significance.

Thursday’s debate struck similar notes, by turns emotional and personal.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, who represents the city in which Briggs was slain, brought up the cases in support of the penalty. And he referred to a recent case: Dan Doherty, a Manchester police officer who was shot seven times in 2012, but surived. The death penalty, D’Allesandro said, helps protect police officers by acting as a deterrent.

“That man is going to suffer for the rest of us because he took seven bullets defending us,” D’Allesandro said of Doherty.

Speaking in favor of repeal, Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, brought in personal experience. Ward’s father was shot to death when she was 8, she said. But her mother, left with five children, opted for forgiveness.

“This struck me,” she said. “You can forgive somebody. My mother had incredible faith, and she trusted that whatever happens (to the murderer), it is in God’s hands.”

Others, like Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, spoke to a transformation of opinion. Previously a supporter, Avard changed his mind after meeting people exonerated from death row after their convictions were overturned. The justice system can be faulty, Avard argued, making capital punishment a risk too high.

“If we execute someone wrongfully, their blood is on our hands,” he said. “And I don’t think I want the blood of anyone on my hands when I meet my maker.”

But Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said that New Hampshire’s law is used sparingly and appropriately. “We are very, very, very careful under the circumstances under which it’s used,” she said. “We just don’t go executing people left and right.”

Yet when the penalty is applied, she added, it provides justice to those whose have seen their lives shattered.

“They’ve been taken away from their families,” she said. “They will never get to see their kids growing up.”

Thursday’s passage in the Senate had been expected; 13 senators had signed on as sponsors, an automatic majority for the chamber. But for supporters, the vote still represented a milestone. The Senate has often deadlocked on the issue; as recently as 2016, the votes stood at 12-12.

The vote comes as several states have initiated repeal efforts in recent years. In all, 31 states currently have the death penalty on the books.

Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which supports repeal, argued nationwide momentum is building.

“The trend is definitely in the direction of repeal,” Hruska said. One factor, she said, has been advances in forensics, which have spotlighted faulty evidence and helped overturn convictions.

“The concept of executing an innocent person is becoming increasingly real and something society has to be real honest about,” Hruska said.

For now, New Hampshire’s bill heads the House. But weighing on any debate is a hard reality: the opposition of Gov. Chris Sununu. In February, Sununu said he would veto the measure if it passes both chambers and reaches his desk.

“A top priority of my administration has been to strengthen laws for crime victims and their families,” he said then, adding that repeal would send the state “in exactly the wrong direction.”

“There is no doubt that the most heinous crimes warrant the death penalty,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, o r on Twitter at @edewittNH.)