Lawmakers delve deeper into debate over whether to repeal N.H. death penalty

  • In a half-hour discussion, the House Criminal Justice Committee debates a bill repealing the state's death penalty, April 17, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton at the State House in Concord on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The House Criminal Justice committee threw its support behind a bill to repeal the death penalty Tuesday, voting, 12-6, to recommend repeal the government’s ultimate punishment after lengthy debate.

In a half-hour of measured discussion, committee members dove into what have become well-trod arguments, weighing the moral costs, the potential to deter other criminals, and the costs of carrying out capital punishment. Several members said they came in undecided, wrestling with the question out loud to the committee.

“I assume everyone’s changed their minds several times,” quipped chairman David Welch, R-Kingston, ahead of the vote.

The legislation, Senate Bill 593, would strike the words “may be punished by death” from the state’s capital punishment statute, replacing them with “shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility for parole.” New Hampshire is one of 31 states to have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The bill passed the Senate in March, 14-10 – a historical first for the chamber. But ahead of that vote, Gov. Chris Sununu vowed he would veto the bill, saying it would send the state “in exactly the wrong direction” and go against the wishes of law enforcement and victims.

On Tuesday, arguments for and against fell into familiar grooves.

Some dwelled on blame. Rep. Frank Sapareto urged the committee to vote against repeal, arguing that those who didn’t would be partially responsible if someone imprisoned for life killed again.

“Everyone who does vote yes to this, you’re going to bear that responsibility for the rest of your life,” he said. “I don’t want to be responsible for those deaths. I’ll vote no.”

Rep. Linn Opderbecke, D-Dover, countered that allowing a law that could lead the state to execute someone innocent also carried moral consequences.

“On the other side are the mistakes that we make,” he said. “And I think that’s a great concern.”

Others pointed to costs. Rep. Roger Berube, D-Somersworth, said the appeals process for death penalty cases can rise into the millions. Rep. Carolyn Gargasz, R-Hollis, while supporting repeal, made note that life in prison also carries high costs for the state.

A few more said they were conflicted.

“I am truly on the fence with this one,” said Rep. John Burt, R-Goffstown. He ultimately voted in favor of repeal, citing examples of cases where those convicted have been exonerated via forensic evidence.

Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanborton, said he was similarly undecided, but ended up voting against repeal, influenced by the rise of school shootings and the need, he said, for justice.

And one, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, spoke to his unique trauma. In 1988, Cushing’s father was murdered on his doorstep, killed by shotgun in front of his mother. But Cushing’s experience informed his views against the death penalty, not in favor, he said. For decades he’s been pushing for repeal in New Hampshire, arguing that the measure is not necessary to deliver justice for surviving victims.

On Tuesday, he pointed to the millions in legal costs incurred by the appeals surrounding New Hampshire’s only death row inmate, Michael Addison, convicted for the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. That money could have been used toward tackling the state’s remaining 119 cold cases, or funding victim support services, he argued.

“They’re wondering: Why all the attention is being paid to one killer, when 119 other families are seemingly forgotten?” he said of the families. “It creates a hierarchy of victims.”

It was a perspective that appeared to resonate. After a roll call vote – some shouting out their vote, others pausing before making the call – the bill moved forward as “ought to pass.”

It now heads to the House floor.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)