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With Hassan in office, death penalty’s days could be numbered

Last modified: 11/25/2012 11:29:17 AM
For the first time in decades, opponents of the death penalty will have a governor in office who agrees with them.

But legislators who will be crafting a bill to repeal the state’s capital punishment law say it’s unlikely that it would affect the state’s sole person on death row, Michael Addison.

But it’s not because the Legislature couldn’t try to spare Addison, who is facing execution for the 2006 murder of a Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, if it wished.

While changes to the criminal code aren’t typically retroactive, a bill could include language making the repeal “going backwards and going forwards,” according to Buzz Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

“But they’d have to do that explicitly,” Scherr said.

Gov. John Lynch has been a strong supporter of the death penalty during his four terms in office, vowing to veto a repeal if one passed and signing into law an expansion of the death penalty statute that allows those responsible for murders during home invasions to be eligible for death.

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan, on the other hand, said multiple times during her campaign that she opposes capital punishment “as a matter of personal conscience and faith” and wouldn’t have signed the expansion as Lynch did.

She has stipulated, though, that she wouldn’t commute Addison’s sentence.

“It was the law on our books in New Hampshire when he was convicted of his crime, and I do trust and believe in our criminal justice system and our courts system,” Hassan said during a televised debate before the Democratic primary. “But as a matter of personal faith and conscience, I oppose the death penalty. I do, however, support life in prison without parole for certain heinous crimes.”

For lawmakers seeking a repeal, her stance opens the door for a new dialogue and clears the way for abolition down the road.

Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat who is working on repeal legislation that could be introduced in the session starting in January, said he doesn’t foresee trying to make the new bill retroactive. Instead, he expects the bill will follow the lead set in states such as New Mexico and Connecticut, where recent repeals have only affected new cases.

“In some ways, it’s a cleaner bill,” said Cushing, who will soon rejoin the House after loosing his seat in 2010. “It’s talking about the future rather than what transpired in the past.”

Barbara Keshen, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said while her group has not discussed the merits of a retroactive repeal, she, too, doesn’t foresee it being a good option.

“My guess is we wouldn’t push for that,” she said. “Our goal would be to achieve repeal and then maybe seek some kind of moratorium.”

Addison is the first person sentenced to die under New Hampshire’s modern capital punishment statute, which allows a jury to impose a death sentence in limited cases, including the murder of a police officer. Addison was sentenced in 2008 after a three-part trial that stretched nine weeks. The case was automatically appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which will now weigh – likely over the next six months to a year, according to state officials – whether the trial was fair.

If Addison’s appeal is unsuccessful, his lawyers have a myriad of other options that could take a decade to exhaust, including appeals through the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. District Court in Concord.

Cushing mentioned those routes when saying his legislation is not likely to be retroactive.

“New Hampshire doesn’t love the death penalty. We haven’t executed anyone since 1939. I don’t see a rush to execute right now anyways,” he said. “And I think people are going to let the legal process sort itself out in that case.”

Previous attempts to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire have come up short in the Legislature. A repeal passed the House by a margin of 20 votes in 2009. But the bill was killed narrowly by the Senate.

At the time, Lynch vowed to veto the bill if it passed, saying that he believed certain crimes are so grave the death penalty is appropriate.

According to Keshen, Lynch’s hard line on the issue stifled debate. Cushing, too, said while the death penalty is brought up each legislative session, the conversations have been somewhat hindered.

“I’d be disingenuous to say that (Lynch’s) opposition didn’t have an influence on the legislative process,” Cushing said. “We’re really into uncharted territory, I guess, when having a governor who is at least open to repealing the death penalty.”

Keshen hopes that with Hassan in charge, conversations about the death penalty could culminate in a repeal in a few years.

“For the next two years, I think there will be a lot more meaningful debate on the pros and cons of the death penalty,” she said.

Hassan has not taken a stance on whether she would sign off on legislation that retroactively repealed the death penalty.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)


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