Death penalty repeal supporters make key gains in State House

Monitor staff
Published: 12/15/2018 6:55:06 PM

Supporters of death penalty repeal appear to have a veto-proof majority in the New Hampshire Senate this coming legislative session, easing the road for potential passage a year after Gov. Chris Sununu blocked the measure from becoming law.

After an election that saw four senators lose their seats and two more retire, the balance has tilted toward repeal, supporters say. Sixteen Democrats and Republicans have publicly stated their opposition to capital punishment, through votes or statements, exactly the two-thirds required to overturn another veto.

“We’re optimistic,” said Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, a proponent of recent repeal efforts.

Overturning a potential veto by the governor would cement a swing in recent years against the penalty. In June, Sununu vetoed a repeal bill that cleared the Senate 14-10 – the first governor since Jeanne Shaheen to block the effort. An override effort stalled in the Senate this September by the same margin.

This time, the 16 necessary votes appear to come from legislators old and new, on both sides of the aisle. Fourteen incoming senators have already voted on the record in favor of repeal, whether in the Senate, like Sens. Bob Giuda, David Watters, Martha Hennessy, Harold French, Ruth Ward, Jay Kahn, Dan Feltes, John Reagan, Donna Soucy and Martha Fuller-Clark, or in the House, like Sens. Shannon Chandley, Cindy Rosenwald, Melanie Levesque and Tom Sherman.

Two more Democrats, Sens. Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough and Jon Morgan of Brentwood, have publicly opposed the penalty, though neither has directly announced how they would vote.

“Obviously I’d want to read anything I voted for or against first,” Morgan said in an interview Monday. “But I think it’s safe to say in general I’m comfortable letting people know I’m opposed to the death penalty.”

Dietsch didn’t return a request for comment. But in a 2016 debate during her unsuccessful primary challenge for her present Senate seat, the Peterborough senator called for repeal, describing the death penalty as an eye-for-an-eye “feudal sort of arrangement that we no longer believe in.”

Repeal advocates say Dietsch reiterated that position in conversations this past election cycle.

Supporters of the death penalty say it provides justice to survivors, acts as a deterrent and leads to better plea bargains. Opponents call it immoral, costly and prone to error.

The apparent shift in support could supercharge an effort in the House next year, inviting a new round of pleas to emotions and morality, both for and against repeal.

Hampton Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, a longstanding champion of repeal, has submitted a bill request for repeal next year, which advocates say will take the same form as last year’s. Cushing was not available to comment on the effort.

But repeal advocates still face plenty of uncertainty. For one, Sununu has made clear he is still opposed to repeal, all but ensuring a need for two-thirds support.

“Governor Sununu will continue to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty,” said Ben Vihstadt, a spokesman for the governor, in a statement.

And for advocates seeking to secure a two-thirds veto override majority, the 400-member House could be harder to pin down.

In April, with 339 members present, the House voted 223-116, just under a two-thirds majority. Supporters of repeal would likely need to beat that performance on “veto override day” when attendance can fluctuate.

“Its hard to tell, especially this early,” said Hruska. But “given the numbers last year and the election this year, we’re optimistic that we’ll have even more support in the House,” she added.

The new 233-167 Democratic majority in the House could boost that calculation. Democrats have recently been more unified on death penalty than Republicans.

In April’s vote, 98 House Republicans voted against repeal and 70 voted in favor. In contrast, of the 150 House Democrats in attendance at the time of the vote last spring, only 10 voted against repeal – many hailing from Manchester, where the conviction of New Hampshire’s lone death row inmate, Michael Addison, strongly resonates.

Of those 10, some, like Rep. Dianne Schuett of Pembroke, remain steadfastly opposed this time around. Schuett’s late husband worked in law enforcement, she said. For her the argument for deterrence rings through.

“If the feeling is it prevents one person from shooting one police officer, that’s worth it to me,” she said.

Others are less sure.

“Philosophically I don’t want to give the state authority to take life,” said Rep. Tom Buco of Conway, who voted against repeal. “But on the other hand, I voted against repealing it because I thought that it would give prosecutors some leverage (during plea bargains).”

“I’m talking myself right out of it,” he laughed. “I really have more rationale against the death penalty than I do in favor it.”

Rep. Tim Soucy of Concord, another of the 10 Democratic no-voters, said he was open to persuasion, too. A retired Nashua firefighter with deep friendships in law enforcement, the Addison conviction hit home, he said, driving his support for capital punishment.

But looking to the next vote, he said he would hear people out.

“I’m open minded on things like this,” he said. “I don’t just make an irrational decision. I will absolutely listen to both sides on it.”

The fate of Addison, convicted for the 2006 murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, will hang over any repeal effort. For years, opponents of repeal of invoked Addison’s case, arguing that repealing the penalty could give Addison a backdoor way to escaping the penalty himself.

But repeal advocates say any bill would apply only to future cases, allowing Addison’s execution to proceed if he exhausts his appeals.

But few on either side of the issue can say how the execution of Addison would even happen. New Hampshire has no facilities to carry out an execution, no drugs necessary to do so and no execution protocols in place.

Both supporters and opponents say the state should hold off on deciding on a plan for the execution until Addison exhausts his appeals and the need arises.

“Most criminal bills are prospective and this bill is also prospective,” said Barbara Keshen, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “We’ll let the courts and the lawyers figure out what happens to Michael Addison.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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