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State Senate divided on death penalty repeal

The Legislature has debated repealing the death penalty twice in the last 13 years and came closest when repeal passed both chambers in 2000 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Lawmakers will take up repeal again in January – with renewed optimism.

Unlike Shaheen and former governor John Lynch, Gov. Maggie Hassan said on the campaign trail that she’d sign a repeal of the death penalty if it reached her desk. Her spokesman said last week her position hasn’t changed.

“Gov. Hassan supports life in prison without parole for heinous crimes,” Marc Goldberg said in an email. “As a matter of faith and conscience, she does not support the death penalty.” Goldberg said that Hassan, however, will listen to all arguments “in order to honor and respect the emotions and beliefs of all those involved.”

The state’s death penalty law allows the use of capital punishment for a narrow set of crimes: the 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.

With the corner office on their side, advocates are focused on the state Senate. Unlike the House, which supported a repeal in 2000 and 2009, the Senate backed repeal only in 2000. Last week, the Monitor called all 24 senators for their position on a repeal bill and connected with 18. Seven said they’d oppose a repeal and six said they’d support it. The other five, two of whom have voted against repeal in the past, said they are undecided.

Here’s a closer look at those who oppose repeal:

Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, said the narrowness of New Hampshire’s law gives him comfort: “I am personally skeptical of the need to change the state’s death penalty law,” Morse said by email. “Our state has not used the death penalty in over 70 years and currently has only one inmate, the convicted killer of a police officer, on death row. The possibility of the death penalty provides a deterrent against the most heinous crimes.”

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, opposed repeal in 2000 and hasn’t changed his position. “I think I am unconvinced,” he said of the need for repeal. “Anything is worth looking at.”

Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, opposed repeal in 2009 and still does. “I’m interested in what others people have to say about it, but you can’t just ignore all of the things people do,” he said. He believes the law deters crime and he thinks advances in DNA testing help prevent the conviction of innocent people.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, will continue to oppose repeal, as he did in 2000 and 2009. “I think there are some crimes that are just so heinous that, like the mother who was killed in the Mont Vernon home invasion,” they warrant the death penalty, he said.

Sen. Peter Bragdon, a Milford Republican, said, “The death penalty is very limited. I think given its limited nature, we’re not apt to see the problems that other states have.” He cited a former state prosecutor who once told him there are “monsters” out there.

“That’s where I’m at right now,” Bragdon said. “Obviously, I’m always open to hear other people’s thoughts and concerns.”

Sen. Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican, opposed repeal in 2009 and still does. “I haven’t seen that piece of legislation, but at this point, I probably would not change my position.”

Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican who voted against repeal in 2009, hasn’t changed her position. She believes the death penalty deters crime, and she thinks it should also include the murder of children.

Below are those who support a repeal:

Sen. Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, is co-sponsoring the repeal bill and said his faith and the state Constitution leave him opposed to the death penalty. He pointed to Part 1, Article 18 of the state Constition, which says punishment should reform, not “exterminate” mankind.

“Death is the easy way out,” Cataldo said. “If I had my way, I would put the person in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives.”

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat who voted for repeal in 2000, would vote for repeal again. “I just believe that (the death penalty) is not an appropriate form of punishment for a civilized society,” she said. “And that life incarceration is the better way to go.”

Sen. David Pierce, an Etna Democrat, supported the death penalty until he worked as a law clerk for a Pennsylvania judge who had to rule on the last-minute appeal of a death row inmate. The judge rejected the appeal, and Pierce had to do the legal research to support that ruling.

“That made it much more tangible for me than just a conceptual political issue,” Pierce said. “I was three steps removed from being the person who decided if this person lived or died, and it had a profound effect on me.”

Pierce has also come to believe the death penalty does not deter crime.

Sen. David Watters, a Durham Democrat, voted for repeal in 2009 and said he’s “likely” to do so again. “Primarily, it’s a moral decision,” he said. “I do have concerns about protecting our law enforcement officers, and I’m going to listen very closely to debate, but I’m likely to support (repeal).”

Sen. Peggy Gilmour, a Hollis Democrat, said she would “probably” support repeal. She wants to hear more about the cost and deterrence associated with the death penalty, but also brings a religious perspective to the debate, she said.

Sen. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat, voted for repeal in 2000 and said she vote for repeal again.

These five are undecided:

Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican who voted against repeal in 2009, described himself as undecided. He said he’s meeting with people on both sides, including someone from the Catholic bishop’s office and law enforcement.

“A lot of things have happened since 2009, particularly relative to people who have been on death row and because of advances with DNA have been able to be (exonerated,)” he said. “I want that information as a legislator.”

Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican, said he is “open-minded” and was headed to a meeting with repeal advocates when the Monitor reached him.

Odell voted with Lynch to expand the death penalty in 2011 to include murder during home invasions but he’s not committed to keeping the law. “I think New Hampshire has a good death penalty statute in that (no one has been executed) in my lifetime,” Odell said. “But times have changed. I’m glad we are having a debate on this because I am very open minded.”

Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Bedford Republican, isn’t sure how he’d vote. “If you hurt a woman or innocent child and you do it with intent, I don’t have much sympathy for you,” he said. “Having said that, I recognize that people who may be on death row might be innocent. So how do you find that balance?”

Sen. Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, said she’s never taken a position on the death penalty and won’t until she sees the repeal legislation.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Dalton Democrat, described himself in the center of the debate, largely because of research he did for a story he wrote on the death penalty. After gathering several perspectives, Woodburn found himself sympathizing with all of them.

“I’m listening,” he said. “I think we have a good law in New Hampshire, but the question is, ‘Should this be what states should be doing in 2013?’ ”

The following six senators could not be reached: Sen. Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat; Sen. Andrew Hosmer, a Laconia Democrat; Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat, Sen. Russell Prescott, a Kingston Republican; Sen. Jeanie Forrester, a Meredith Republican; and Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican.

Only Larsen has voted previously on a repeal, and she supported it.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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