My Turn: Don’t repeal the death penalty
New Hampshire lawmakers listen to debate on wether to repeal the state's death penalty law, Wednesday, March 12, 2014 in Concord, N.H. The House voter 225-104 in favor of repealing capitol murder. The measure goes to the Republican-controlled Senate next where it faces an uncertain future.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
The New Hampshire Senate is considering House Bill 1170, which would repeal the death penalty that has been on the books in its current form since 1971.
New Hampshire’s law was carefully crafted by then-Attorney General Warren Rudman to limit the cases for capital murder to very specific categories of crime. For instance, a law enforcement officer or prison guard killed in the line of duty is covered by the capital murder statute.
Our prison guards do not carry weapons, and they work in an extremely difficult and violent environment with nothing but the worst convicted felons in the state as their inmates.
If there is no downside for someone serving life for murder, then why not kill a prison guard if nothing changes for that inmate? Would you want to work in an environment where there is no viable deterrent to having your life taken?
It is hard to prove how many people are not killed by the deterrent effect of the death penalty. In other words, we cannot prove statistically that on a given day certain guards were not killed because inmates did not want to lose their own lives, nor do we know how many police officers were not murdered because criminals decided at the last minute not to kill an officer because of the ultimate penalty to be paid for doing so.
The fact that certain people are not deterred and do in fact kill a police officer does not prove the reverse – that is, that no one ever hesitated and avoided killing a guard or police officer due to the reality that the death penalty is on the books.
We have all been super careful not to speed through areas where we know the police give out tickets with regularity. Why? We know the consequences for speeding in that hot spot! That is deterrence.
A 2007 study by two professors at Pepperdine University revealed there is a relationship between the number of executions and the number of murders in the United States. In the early 1980s, the return of the death penalty was associated with a drop in the number of murders. And in the 1990s, when our society increased the number of death penalty executions, the number of murders plummeted from 25,000 a year to approximately 17,000 a year. The professors’ conclusion is that thousands of innocent lives were saved by the execution of those who had committed some of the worse crimes in society because of the deterrent effect of the use of the death penalty.
Given the scrutiny that the New Hampshire Supreme Court is required to make concerning passion, prejudice or any other factor that might be arbitrary, as well as an appeal into the federal system, our law more than qualifies as due process. Our state and federal Constitutions provide that life, liberty and property may not be taken without due process of law. But if due process is followed, the constitutions permit the ultimate penalty to be used.
If you value life, the taking of it without due process is far different than the taking of it in accordance with constitutional protections.
The commission that studied the death penalty in the New Hampshire in December 2010 voted to keep things the way they are. The Senate should kill HB 1170 and leave our very limited law on the books for those extreme crimes that might well increase if the law is repealed.
(Chuck Douglas is a former Superior and Supreme Court Justice who practices law in Concord.)