Our Turn: Death penalty doesn’t serve the needs of law enforcement

Published: 5/19/2019 12:15:18 AM

Watching Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of House Bill 455 recently, one could be excused for coming to the conclusion that all police officers in our state support the death penalty. One could also be led to believe that to support police officers you must support the death penalty or that, conversely, to repeal the death penalty is to hurt police officers. All of these conclusions would be mistaken.

We served on police forces in Manchester and Derry for a combined total of more than 60 years. We have seen the best and the worst that our fellow citizens could dole out. We both have friends and family currently serving in law enforcement.

Yet we and dozens of other criminal justice veterans in New Hampshire want to say to you: The death penalty does not truly serve the needs of law enforcement.

First, we need to say that we understand where pro-death penalty law enforcement professionals are coming from. We are taught in the academy that police are the last line of defense against chaos and anarchy, and that an attack on us is an attack on society, which deserves the swift and sure response of killing the killer.

Sadly, the death penalty in practice is neither swift nor sure. The inevitable lag time between prosecution and execution required by a responsible justice system – 13 years on average nationwide – means that victims’ families will continue to be dragged into the public eye for years, causing untold additional harm. One in 10 of those put on death row are later exonerated, and innocent people have been killed.

Even if we are “absolutely certain” of the perpetrator’s guilt, research shows that the poor and minorities are overwhelmingly more likely to receive death sentences. Worse, death-qualified juries automatically reject anyone who does not support the execution option, making such juries hopelessly prejudicial before even a single word of testimony has been uttered.

Those who respect and uphold our Constitution cannot, after considered analysis of our country’s death penalty system, deny that capital punishment violates the principles of the Fifth Amendment (due process), the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) and the 14th Amendment (equal protection).

On the issue of “who deserves to die,” we take issue with the practice of creating hierarchies of victims where the value of some lives are placed over others. We do not believe the lives of law enforcement professionals deserve more consideration than the firefighter, the EMT, the teacher, the coach, the parent or so many others who weave the fabric of our society. Each murder is the “most heinous” to those who lose a loved one.

We are told that the death penalty will surely factor into the thinking of potential future murderers and stop them cold. But even pro-repeal law enforcement professionals in our state have come around to admitting that deterrence is a myth. Hundreds of studies to date have failed to support the deterrence claim.

Already all other New England states and all other developed Western nations have abolished capital punishment without experiencing increases in murder rates against the public or police. Why, then, do some in New Hampshire insist we hold onto it?

If we value living in a society with evidence-based policies, we must face the truth that the death penalty does nothing to keep law enforcement officers safe. Instead, it wastes valuable resources – over $6 million to date for a single case – and it needlessly burdens prosecutors, public defenders and the courts. A sentence of life in prison without parole safeguards society while providing a harsh punishment.

We naturally share the horror and grief at the loss of each and every one of our brothers and sisters in uniform. Nothing can make up for the loss, and nothing can bring them back. Demanding the death penalty for the perpetrator does not substantively help police. At most it is a symbolic act that may feel justified but that in the end does not return the benefits its proponents claim.

Instead, we invite those who wish to support police officers to take a fresh look at ideas that would make a substantive and concrete difference in the quality of their lives and the lives of their families.

The following list represents a starting point for conversations about how we can better support members of law enforcement in New Hampshire:

■Provide better salaries.

■Increase staffing levels and time off to reduce stress and trauma.

■Offer better mental health services to decrease divorce rates and post-traumatic stress.

■Offer better and more frequent training and equipment.

■Better fund the court system to reduce delays.

■Increase funding for community mental health and drug abuse treatment, and for sensible gun control and poverty-reduction measures.

■Reform our criminal justice system to reduce recidivism, for example by providing better education, transition services and job opportunities.

■Vastly increase victim family compensation, fully fund child college funds, etc.

We who support repealing the death penalty love and respect the citizens of our state as much as those who oppose it. We simply believe that filling yet another coffin is not the best response we as a society can make. And we don’t believe that it in any meaningful way benefits those who put their lives on the line every day for our safety and well-being.

We urge our legislators to override the veto of HB 455 and repeal the death penalty, putting an end this costly, outdated, inhumane and ultimately ineffective policy.

(Richard O’Leary is a former deputy chief of the Manchester Police Department. Paul Lutz is a former lieutenant of the Derry Police Department.)

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