N.H. Senate committee hears testimony on death penalty repeal
The chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned yesterday whether passing a bill to repeal the death penalty would remove the state’s ability to execute Michael Addison, despite legislative intent to keep his death sentence in place.
Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and repeal opponent, raised this issue during a committee hearing on the repeal bill, which has already passed through the House. Supporters of repeal have long said the bill would be prospective, meaning it wouldn’t affect Addison’s case. But Carson pointed to a piece of the bill yesterday that repeals the state laws governing how executions are carried out, including who performs them and what method is used.
“My concern is what will happen to the person that’s currently on death row if we have no method to conduct an execution,” Carson said during the hearing.
Former state attorney general Gregory Smith told the committee it is up to the courts, not the Legislature, to implement the law in specific situations. He said he has not recently read the laws regarding executions. But given it is the Legislature’s intent to make the bill prospective, he said he believes that in the case of repeal, the courts could still apply the old statutes about conducting an execution in Addison’s case.
“You’re saying there will be no change for previous cases,” Smith said.
Senate counsel Richard Lehmann said senators will have a clear answer on how the bill would affect Addison’s fate when it comes to the full Senate floor for a vote.
Aside from Carson’s question, yesterday’s hearing largely focused on familiar arguments for and against repeal. The House passed the repeal bill 225-104 last month, but it will be a close vote in the Senate.
Addison, who was convicted of murdering Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs, is the state’s only person on death row. The state Supreme Court is weighing whether the death penalty was fairly applied in his case. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, supports repeal but said she would sign Addison’s death warrant if it came to her desk.
Prosecutors can pursue capital murder charges in New Hampshire for murder of a law enforcement officer, murder for hire, murder while serving a life sentence in prison, and murder during a rape, drug sale, kidnapping or home invasion.
Supporters of repeal gave the committee information about the cost of the death penalty, shared personal stories and warned committee members that the death penalty is not always applied fairly. The death penalty does not deter crime and history has shown that human error can lead to the wrong conviction, repeal supporters said.
“I never believed that a sentence should be administered that does not have an eraser,” said John Broderick, dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. He and other repeal supporters favor life in prison without parole. “I think this is an opportunity not to let the wave of history pass us by. Particularly in our state, we’re smarter than that, and we’re better than that.”
The state has spent about $2.4 million on Addison’s prosecution and $2.6 million on his defense, and the appeal process is far from over, said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, a Concord Democrat and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee. In contrast, the average prison inmate costs the state about $35,000 annually.
But opponents of repeal said the death penalty helps protect law enforcement officials and that some crimes are so heinous that a death sentence is the only just punishment. Rep. Jeanine Notter, a Merrimack Republican, recounted the 2009 murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon.
“This isn’t about vengeance, it’s about justice – justice for victims of heinous crimes,” Notter said.
The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police also favors keeping the death penalty. Kensington police Chief Michael Sielicki testified before the committee that the possibility of receiving the death penalty serves as another layer of protection for law enforcement officers.
“Let’s keep that in place and let’s continue to make New Hampshire safe,” he said. “Don’t let this get to the point where Michael Addison lives the rest of his life in jail when he should be put to death.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)