N.H. House committee backs death penalty repeal by large margin
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee endorsed a bill to repeal the death penalty in a 14-3 vote yesterday, with a handful of members who have previously opposed repeal changing their minds.
Among them was Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat and retired U.S. marshal, who served on a death penalty study commission created in 2009 and said he cast the deciding vote then against repeal.
“It really is a barbaric practice and the time is now to put it aside, and I think to give somebody life imprisonment so they can think every day about what they’ve done is more of a punishment than ending their life,” Shurtleff said after the vote.
Shurtleff has supported the death penalty as a means of protecting law enforcement officers in the past. But he said testimony on the repeal bill and an article by former Manchester police officer John Breckenridge – whose partner Michael Briggs was killed in the line of duty – arguing in favor of repeal resonated with him and pushed him to change his view. (This bill as written would not change the status of Briggs’s killer, Michael Addison, who is on death row.)
Committee chairwoman Rep. Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat, said she has also changed her mind because she believes the system is unequal. Addison, the only person on death row in New Hampshire, is black. In 1997, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Gordon Perry, a white man who shot police Officer Jeremy Charron. The last man who faced a possible death sentence was John Brooks, a white man who hired people to kill a handyman he believed stole from him. Brooks got life without parole in 2008.
“I can’t live in a state that has two separate groups of people,” Pantelakos said.
Rep. Robbie Parsons, a Milton Republican, took a long pause before casting a yes vote in favor of repeal. Before the vote, he pointed out that arguments of inequality could also serve in favor of expanding the death penalty to include all murders. Under state law, only people who murder a law enforcement official, murder for hire or murder during a drug sale, home invasion or rape or while serving a life sentence in prison can face the death penalty. But ultimately, Parsons said, this inequality argument persuaded him to vote for repeal, marking a change from his push to expand the death penalty in the past.
Republican Reps. Moe Villeneuve of Bedford and Larry Gagne of Manchester voted against the repeal along with Rep. Ronald Boisvert, a Manchester Democrat. Gagne said he will be in favor of the death penalty as long as abortion is legal. Murderers are afforded a trial by jury, but unborn babies do not have a chance to defend themselves, he said.
Reps. Gene Charron, a Chester Republican, Roger Berube, a Somersworth Democrat, and Andrew O’Hearne, a Claremont Democrat, were not present. The bill will now go to the full House.
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)