Religious leaders, death penalty opponents keep hope in override of Sununu veto

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu vetos a bill that would repeal the death penalty in the state during an event at the Officer Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester on Friday, May 3, 2019. Briggs was shot and killed while on duty in 2006. His wife, Laura (left of Sununu), and son Mitchell (right of Sununu) stood behind the governor as he vetoed the legislation. (NICK STOICO / Monitor staff) Nick Stoico—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would repeal the death penalty in the state during an event at the Officer Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester on Friday, May 3, 2019. Nick Stoico—Monitor staff

  • Rev. Jason Wells (left), Tom Westheimer, his wife Beverly Westheimer and Claudia Istel camp out in front of Gov. Chris Sununu’s parking spot on the back side of the State House on Friday morning, May 3, 2019 before Sununu vetoed the death penalty repeal bill. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Claudia Istel was hoping to see Gov. Chris Sununu at the parking spot in back of the State House on Friday morning, but Sununu was signing the veto of the death penalty bill in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

  • Claudia Istel was hoping to see Gov. Chris Sununu at the parking spot in back of the State House on Friday morning but Sununu was signing the veto of the death penalty bill in Manchester on Friday, May 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Claudia Istel stands with others outside Governor Chris Sununu’s parking spot on the back side of the State House on Friday morning, May 3, 2019 before Sununu vetoed the death penalty repeal in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Tom Westheimer (left), his wife Beverly Westheimer, Arnie Alpert and Claudia Istel camp out in front of Gov. Chris Sununu’s parking spot on the back side of the State House on Friday morning, May 3, 2019 before Sununu vetoed the death penalty repeal bill. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/3/2019 4:35:03 PM

The Rev. Jason Wells’s hands were shaking from the cold Friday morning as he tried repeatedly pushing down on his lighter’s igniter to make a flame.

His candle wouldn’t light. The Pembroke pastor tried turning away from the State House to shield it from the wind. Still, all he got were sparks.

“We’ll call it poetic,” he said, finally giving up on the lighter and the candle. “The light going out with the governor’s death penalty repeal veto.”

Wells was standing in front of Gov. Chris Sununu’s parking spot as part of a vigil in solidarity with other local religious leaders, candles and decorated signs in hand, in support of the death penalty repeal, House Bill 455.

The bill ended up getting vetoed by Sununu in Manchester while Wells and his group were protesting – something that didn’t come as much of a surprise to Wells.

“It’s what we expected to happen today,” said Wells, who said he heard Thursday night that Sununu was likely to veto the bill Friday. “We’ll just have to keep our hope.”

The death penalty repeal bill passed the House and Senate and headed to Sununu’s desk Wednesday. Wells said the group had planned to be standing there as Sununu walked into the building to begin his work day. The goal was to wait there starting at 7 a.m. every day after Wednesday until Sununu either signed or vetoed.

Wells said at least 10 denominations of Christianity in the state had made statements against he death penalty. It’s a trend that’s also reflected nationally and internationally in the religion, Wells said.

Just this past August, Pope Francis changed the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty from permitting it in very rare circumstances to now deeming it completely “inadmissible” and in violation of the “dignity of the person.”

Wells said for him, it comes down to the belief that people – even the ones who do horrible things – can be rehabilitated and change over time.

“The death penalty has within it the idea that a person charged with a crime has become so wayward or corrupt that they can never change, that society must be done with that person,” Wells said. “I have heard that statement made in the House criminal justice committee by our representatives. As a Christian, I must reject that claim.”

He said it shouldn’t be up to human beings to decide if someone is beyond hope, Wells said.

“Once you administer that death penalty, you’ve said, ‘We knew better than God whether this person could be changed or redeemed,’ which is a problem for any Christian to face,” Wells said.

Claudia Istel of Ackworth said Christians are commanded to love others as they love God and themselves. They are also commanded not to kill, she said.

“When we give permission to the state to kill, we’re giving permission to the state to kill in our name,” she said. “That’s not acceptable.”

The death penalty repeal bill would change the current law to say that those who commit severe crimes, like murder, are punishable by life imprisonment without parole, instead of the death penalty – something that sounds more reasonable to Istel.

“There are heinous crimes and we want to be able to say they need to be punished in a severe way, but I don’t believe that acting in the manner of the perpetrator of the crime is a solution,” she said.

Istel was bundled in a hat, jacket and gloves, and her eyes kept tearing up from the cold. She wore a button that read, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?”

Tom Westheimer of Peterborough, who was also holding a sign outside the State House, said he isn’t affiliated with any religion. He said he thinks the death penalty is a moral issue.

“It’s just humanity,” he said. “You shouldn’t take lives. There will always be people that do bad things, but killing them is not the way to solve it.”

He said he’s seen bipartisan support increase every year for death penalty repeal. With a majority indicating their support to override Sununu’s veto this legislative season, he’s hopeful.

“Every year is getting better and better,” he said. “I think it could happen this year, I also think that there are forces that may try to fight it, as they have year after year after year.”




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