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N.H. Senate passes death penalty repeal sending the bill to Sununu with veto-proof majorities

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

  • Opponents of the death penalty stood outside of the State House on Thursday, including David Keller, a pastor at the United Church of Christ in Concord (second from right), and Ruth Heath, a Canterbury resident who has been a Quaker for 40 years (far right). By Ethan DeWitt—Monitor staff

Associated Press
Published: 4/11/2019 1:48:00 PM

New Hampshire is on track to become the next state without the death penalty now that both the House and Senate have voted with veto-proof majorities to repeal its capital punishment law.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a death penalty repeal bill last June, and the Senate lacked the votes to override it in September. But momentum grew after Democrats won control of both the House and Senate in November, and an identical bill has passed both chambers with more than the necessary two-thirds majority needed to override Sununu’s planned veto. The House voted 279-88 last month, while the Senate vote Thursday was 17-6, with five Republicans joining 12 Democrats voting in favor of repeal.

“State-sanctioned killing is cruel, ineffective and inherently flawed,” said Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover. “It is time to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire. Now is the time.”

Thirty states allow capital punishment, though in four of them, governors have issued moratoria on the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Twenty states have abolished or overturned it.

New Hampshire hasn’t executed anyone since 1939. The repeal bill would not apply retroactively to Michael Addison, who killed Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006 and is the state’s only death row inmate. But supporters of capital punishment argue that courts will see it differently.

“The day that this passes and is signed into law, Mr. Addison’s sentence will be converted to life in prison,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry.  “Please talk to Mrs. Briggs about that, the wife of the police officer that was murdered in the line of duty. She will not be able to speak to her husband again, whereas Mr. Addison will be able to talk to his family and have them come up to visit him.”

Laura Briggs has largely stayed out of the debate over the death penalty bill over the years, but she spoke last month against a repeal in part because her son’s now working in law enforcement.

“The death penalty is about protecting society from evil. It’s not about an eye-for-an-eye or revenge. It’s about protecting our society from evil people that do evil things,” she said at the time.

Carson echoed those comments Thursday.

“We’re not talking about getting revenge or soothing the families soul or anything else like that,” she said. “This is about justice nothing more, nothing less.”

Other relatives of murder victims, however, testified against the bill, as did retired prosecutors, clergy and former death row inmates who were exonerated and released. Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, said their comments helped solidify his previous opposition to the death penalty, which had been based mainly on the cost associated with lengthy appeals in capital murder cases.

“As I get older I realized for a fact we’re actually all on death row and it’s just a matter of time before our names get called. When my name gets called, I’m going to go before the Lord with a huge basket full of regrets and misdeeds, just like you will. But I tell you what won’t be in that basket of misdeeds,” he said. “What won’t be in there is that I did not turn a deaf ear to those who came and took the time to speak to us to get rid of the death penalty.”

Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, kept her remarks short, explaining simply that her father was killed when she was 7 years old.

“He never saw us grow up. My mother forgave whoever it was, and I will vote in favor of this bill,” she said.

A spokesman for Sununu reiterated the governor’s opposition to the bill Thursday.

“Gov. Sununu continues to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty,” Ben Vihstadt said in a written statement.

Still, Thursday’s vote was comforting to a small crowd of death penalty opponents who lined the State House steps. 

For Ruth Heath, her position against capital punishment is not a recent one. The Canterbury resident has been a Quaker for 40 years, and the prospect of killing is impossible to support. 

“It’s morally wrong,” she said. “And it’s also wrong because it’s not equally distributed among all people.”

Heath and others waving signs Thursday morning said they noticed a shift in public attitudes in recent years, a major factor in the Senate’s vote. 

David Keller, a pastor at the United Church of Christ in Concord, pointed to two changes in the last twenty years: a rising awareness of executions carried out against convicts who were later exonerated, and attention on the expenses incurred by states that have the punishment. 

“Those two other pieces of insight I think have changed the conversation quite a bit,” he said. “The moral issue’s been around, but what’s new is the cost and the discovery through DNA evidence that people on death row were not guilty of the crimes they were convicted of.”

(Staff writer Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report.)

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