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More than 50,000 anti-death penalty signatures delivered to Sununu



Monitor staff
Friday, May 18, 2018

For months, the promise has been unwavering: Gov. Chris Sununu will veto a bill to repeal the death penalty when it reaches his desk. On Thursday, loved ones of murder victims tried a last-ditch attempt to change his mind.

Taking to a podium, surviving family members from across the state railed against the state’s capital punishment law as unnecessary and unjust – representing brothers, mothers, and grandsons of the slain. And they delivered more than 56,000 petition signatures to Sununu, urging him to sign a bill to repeal the law.

“The governor, in talking about capital punishment, has invoked the name of victims as a rationale for preserving the death penalty,” said Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, a long-time supporter of repeal who lost his father and brother to gun violence. “We are here to say that we’ve paid a very painful and harsh price for our ability to stand before you and to stand before him and say we don’t want killing in our name.”

Senate Bill 593 would strike the words “may be punished by death” from the state’s capital punishment statute, replacing them with “shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility for parole.” New Hampshire is one of 31 states to have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In vowing a veto of the bill back in February, Sununu invoked survivors and officers, arguing that repealing the death penalty would “send us in exactly the wrong direction.”

“I stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty,” he said in a statement then. “A top priority of my administration has been to strengthen laws for crime victims and their families.”

Sununu would be the second governor in recent years to veto a repeal effort; Gov. Jeanne Shaheen shut down a previous attempt by the Legislature in 2000.

But the survivors speaking Thursday pressed for a different response to grievous crimes.

Nearly 30 years ago, Concord native Laura Bonk lost her mother to a shooting during a home visit of a woman with dementia – “a senseless crime,” she recalled before the podium. The woman’s son pulled the trigger, striking Bonk’s sister and nearly killing her, too.

The death was devastating, but the legal process that followed it was more excruciating; Bonk and her family endured endless trials, appeals, postponements, entering a “part of our government that few people experience,” she said. In the end, her mother’s murderer died of natural causes in prison, Bonk recalled. She was told through a phone call, over dinner.

“There is a false belief that death brings closure to family members,” Bonk said. “It does no such thing. The murderer’s death does not bring your loved one back. It does not help the victims heal.”

Margaret Hawthorn, a Rindge resident whose daughter Molly MacDougall was shot to death in Henniker in 2010, said she rejects death as the correct resolution. “For me, the best possible outcome would be to see the man who killed my daughter make a positive contribution with the life he is now to live in prison,” she said. “There is no promise this will happen, but an execution would guarantee it couldn’t.”

Carol Stamatakis’s perspective differed. Her father’s killer never faced the prospect of the death penalty – the killer was never apprehended at all, one of a mass of cold cases that still haunt the country. Diverting money to prosecuting and carrying out the death penalty could come at the expense of investigations and answers, Stamatakis argued. In her case, more money could have meant more time collecting evidence to find the murderer, who killed her father in Ohio in 1997.

“The best way we can support murder victim family members is by allocating as many resources as we can to solve all cases and to support all victims,” she said.

The bill, passed by the House and Senate, is awaiting final signature by Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, before it heads to the governor’s desk, his office said Wednesday. Once received, Sununu will have five days to sign it, veto it, or do nothing and allow it to become law.

It is unlikely that the Senate, which passed the bill, 14-10, could muster additional votes to override the governor’s veto.

On Thursday, with time running low, Cushing accused Sununu of turning down requests to meet with the anti-capital punishment advocates.

But a spokesman for the governor, Ben Vihstadt, rejected the charge.

“Representatives from our office indicated to them weeks ago that they would be happy to meet with them at any time,” he said. “That invitation remains open.”

The governor, Vihstadt added, still intends to veto the bill.

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