With new arguments, death penalty repeal again passes N.H. House

  • Some of the signs supporting the repeal of the Death Penalty bill outside of Representatives Hall at the State House. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/7/2019 12:24:57 PM

The world Safiya Wazir fled is a far cry from the one she ended up in.

Her old home, Taliban-plagued Afghanistan, drove her family into ten years of living as refugees. Her current community in Concord, New Hampshire welcomed Wazir and propelled her into political office.

But old and new are linked in one morbid aspect, the Concord Democrat said Thursday: the death penalty.

New Hampshire’s death penalty, Wazir argued on the House floor, hews to the same “state-sponsored violence” as the government she left.

“The United States has absolutely no need of capital punishment, and New Hampshire should remove itself from the terrible list of states that use the death penalty,” Wazir said, citing Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Now, Wazir and other lawmakers are hoping this will be the time after years of trying. Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed an effort to abolish New Hampshire’s death penalty, and efforts to override fell short.

On Thursday, a bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with “life without the possibility of parole” passed the House floor with decisive numbers 279-88, sending it over to the Senate.

That margin, at 76 percent of the 367 members present, would easily clear the two-thirds majority requirement for a veto override should the bill reach Sununu again this year.

Supporters were triumphant.

“We had a very powerful, public hearing ... with all the reasons to oppose the death penalty presented in a really clear fashion,” said Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing, the bill’s sponsor and an advocate for repeal for 20 years. “And I knew from conversations with other legislators that we were going to have a strong number.”

This year’s bill, House Bill 455, is identical in wording to the legislation that passed last year, Senate Bill 593. That bill made it to Sununu’s desk after clearing the House 223-116, but the Senate failed to amass the 16 votes necessary to override the governor’s veto in September.

Thursday’s hearing featured a range of arguments both time-tested and new. Repeal advocates presented a case that the penalty is morally untenable – an irreversible act of justice that can sweep up innocent defendants. Its supporters were equally passionate, charging that the penalty was the only way to provide real justice for heinous crimes, and real deterrence.

On Thursday, members of the House made personal pleas and drew from real-world experiences.

Rep. Jeanine Notter, a Merrimack Republican, invoked the Mont Vernon murder of 2014, in which two men killed Kimberly Cates in a so-called “thrill kill” and injured her 11-year-old daughter with a machete. The convicted killers were given life sentences, but Notter said the penalty came up short.

“I believe that life in prison is not justice for a heinous crime like this,” she told the House.

One long-serving representative announced a change of heart. Kingston Republican David Welch opposed repeal of the penalty for 16 terms – and chaired the Criminal Justice Committee during last year’s vote.

But the recent death of his wife, Welch told the room, upended his calculus.

“When that inmate is put to death, there’s another family going through the grief,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s a good policy to execute people. It’s a much worse penalty living there for the rest of their lives.”

Weighing on this debate – and every death penalty debate for the past decade – was one man: Michael Addison. Addison, who was convicted of the 2006 killing of a Manchester police officer, is New Hampshire’s only death row inmate and will be the first person executed in the Granite State since 1939 if he exhausts his appeal.

For years, supporters of repeal have danced around Addison’s case, arguing that their legislation is forward-looking and would allow Addison’s sentence to be carried out if upheld in the courts. Opponents have raised alarm at that proposition, pointing to other states that abolished capital punishment and saw courts vacate existing death sentences.

Sununu has stood steady in his opposition. Asked whether he would veto another death penalty bill, Sununu was unequivocal.

“I will,” the governor said. “I stand with police and I stand with victims.”

The difference of opinion between lawmakers and the governor isn’t unique to Sununu. In 2000, then Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a bill that would have repealed the death penalty. Gov. John Lynch was never given the opportunity to veto a similar bill, but promised he would do so if it reached his desk. In 2011, Lynch signed a law expanding the death penalty to cover home invasions after a Mont Vernon woman was murdered in her home by a teenager with a machete, who planned the attack with his friends.

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