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Shift in N.H. on death penalty mirrors national moves toward repeal

Former N.H. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen smiles after the unveiling of her portrait, in background, at the N.H. Historical Society in Concord, N.H. Thursday, May 17, 2007.  The official portrait of New Hampshire's first elected female governor soon will hang in the Statehouse _ the only portrait of a woman among many portraits of male governors. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter) (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

Former N.H. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen smiles after the unveiling of her portrait, in background, at the N.H. Historical Society in Concord, N.H. Thursday, May 17, 2007. The official portrait of New Hampshire's first elected female governor soon will hang in the Statehouse _ the only portrait of a woman among many portraits of male governors. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter) (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

When a death penalty repeal bill made it to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s desk in 2000, New Hampshire had a chance to become the leader of a trend that would take off half a decade later.

But Shaheen, a Democrat, wielded her veto pen, stopping that early momentum in its tracks. Opposition from the corner office spelled death for repeal efforts for the next dozen years, with attempts passing the House only once and never making it through the Senate. Meanwhile, New Jersey kicked off a series of repeals in 2007 that has gained traction since, with New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland joining the list of states to abolish the death penalty.

Now, with a governor who supports repeal and a change of heart from several lawmakers on a key House committee, 2014 could be the year New Hampshire joins that list.

“New Hampshire is one state that people are looking to that might be the state this year,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

This month, a bill to repeal the death penalty sponsored by Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, will face its first major test with a vote on the House floor. Its prospects look good, as the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee endorsed the bill, 14-3. In that vote, three longtime death penalty supporters, including Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat, changed their minds. Cushing’s bill has more than 100 co-sponsors.

“I think more and more people are starting to look and to see the death penalty isn’t the way to go,” Shurtleff said. As recently as 2010, he favored maintaining the death penalty for specific crimes.

Less predictable

The bill’s fate in the Senate is less predictable, but it has a chance of passing. Senators reached by the Monitor in the fall were split on the issue, and party leadership is not pushing senators to vote in a certain way. At least one Democrat, Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, is against repeal, while at least one Republican, Sen. Sam Cataldo of Farmington, favors repeal.

Three Republicans and two Democrats told the Monitor they were undecided in the fall, and the rest could not be reached. Anti-death penalty groups have been holding individual and group meetings with senators to make their case, while opponents of repeal are less organized.

If the bill makes it through the Senate, Gov. Maggie Hassan will sign it. In the 2012 election, Hassan and Republican Ovide Lamontagne, both said they favored repeal.

If passed, the nonretroactive bill would not change the fate of Michael Addison, who is on death row for the murder of Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is the state’s only person on death row, and New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939.

Narrow list

New Hampshire has a very narrow list of crimes for which prosecutors can bring a death sentence: murder of a law enforcement official, murder for hire, murder during a kidnapping, drug sale, home invasion or rape, and murder while serving a life sentence in prison. The home invasion provision was added to the law in 2011 after a brutal murder in Mont Vernon.

Opponents of repeal say this narrow law and the justice system’s restraint in using it are reasons to keep the law on the books.

“There are truly, truly evil people in the world that commit crimes so heinous that the death penalty is the only just sentence,” said Rep. Keith Murphy, a Bedford Republican. “New Hampshire’s death penalty statutes make it incredibly difficult to be sentenced to death.”

Rep. Joel Winters, a Nashua Democrat, said he’s heard no compelling reason for repealing the death penalty, but he believes a repeal will happen this year.

“I can see the writing on the wall. I believe the House is going to pass this and probably the Senate will, too. It won’t bother me if the death penalty is repealed in New Hampshire,” he said.

National shift

The shift, nationally and statewide, has been slow, as the death penalty is a complicated issue that arouses deep emotions. But in recent years, law enforcement officials and victims’ families arguing for repeal have become more visible, advocates say.

“It’s an issue that for many years it was the lightning rod – you stayed away,” Rieter said. “But lately, political leaders have said they’re opposed. There’s more of that openness now, and so these bills are starting to move, they’re not seen as so dangerous that no one wants to touch them.”

In New Hampshire, for example, the former partner of Briggs, the police officer murdered by Addison in 2006, has been a vocal supporter of repeal this year. Former attorney general Phil McLaughlin, who pursued the death penalty during his tenure, also supports repeal.

Three people, including Manchester’s assistant police chief, testified against a repeal during a House hearing in January. Many lawmakers are also firm in their support. Republican Senate Leaders Chuck Morse and Jeb Bradley, for example, said they believe there are some crimes so heinous that the death penalty is appropriate. Shaheen, now a U.S. senator, said last week she still favors the death penalty in some cases.

But also at that January hearing, dozens of people, including victim’s families and leaders from the faith community, testified in favor of repeal.

“I think what is new is the emergence of voices that we haven’t really seen before,” Cushing said. For a long time, it was assumed that family members of murder victims wanted the death penalty, but that’s not always true, he said. Cushing’s father was murdered in 1988.

Unequal application?

Some opponents of the death penalty also say its use in New Hampshire has been unequal. Addison, the only man on death row, is black. A white man who killed a police officer in 1997 was not sentenced to death. Rep. Laura Pantelakos, chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said she changed her mind and voted in favor of repeal for that reason specifically.

For McLaughlin, the former attorney general from 1997-2002, the fact that New Hampshire has put one man on death row since 1939 shows the unfairness of the law rather than the restraint of it, as supporters say. There is no way to justify Addison’s sentence while so many others have not been sentenced to death.

“These folks in the Legislature today, in the House and in the Senate, they’re actually called upon to think about it. And if I were them, I would not think about it in terms of Brooks, I would not think about it in terms of Addison, I would think about it in terms of my responsibility to create and support what I would call a just society, and that should mean something, that concept should mean something to all reasonable people,” he said.

A House vote on Cushing’s bill hasn’t been scheduled, but must happen by March 27.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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