Death penalty repeal passes major hurdle

Monitor staff
Published: 4/2/2019 10:27:45 AM

With little discussion, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for a bill to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty Tuesday, in a 4-1 vote that sends the bill to its likely passage on the Senate floor.

House Bill 455, which would replace the punishment for capital murder in the Granite State from “may be punished by death” to “shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life without the possibility for parole,” already passed the House with overwhelming numbers last month.

That vote, 279-88, suggested the possibility of supermajority that could overcome an expected veto by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Supporters of death penalty repeal say they also have the 16 votes in the Senate necessary for a two-thirds veto override – 14 senators who have voted for repeal as lawmakers in the past and two freshmen senators who supported repeal during their campaigns.

But with weeks left, and likely strong opposition to repeal from police unions and other interest groups, little is set in stone. In a hearing last month, the widow of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, whose 2006 murder by Michael Addison led to New Hampshire’s only current death row case, pleaded with lawmakers to allow the penalty to continue until his appeals are exhausted.

In remarks ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Sen. Melanie Levesque, a Brookline Democrat in favor of repeal, called the testimony on both sides “really moving,” but said she was struck by arguments that the endless appeal process surrounding death row appeals can prolong the anguish for victims’ families.

Franklin Republican Sen. Harold French added that after hearing the testimony, his feelings against the death penalty “are stronger than they were last time.

“Although there are probably a handful of good reasons to keep the death penalty in place in this state, I think it’s overwhelmingly the truth there are more reasons ... to get rid of the death penalty.”

Sen. Sharon Carson, the Londonderry Republican who voted in opposition, declined to give remarks.

This year’s bill is identical in wording to the legislation that passed last year, which 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.

This year’s arguments on either side have been both time-tested and new.

Sununu has stood steady in his opposition.

“I stand with police and I stand with victims,” Sununu said last week.

Among those who testified against taking away the death penalty was former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Briggs’s widow, Laura, who said her husband supported capital punishment.

“He wasn’t the kind of person you’d speak for, but I’m going to speak for him today because I know he was for the death penalty,” Laura Briggs said last week. “Now that my son is working in law enforcement, I would like to know that if anything happened to him, he would get fair justice.”

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

But after the death of his wife, he changed his position.

“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.”

Concord Rep. Safiya Wazir, a former refugee from Afghanistan, added her voice to the debate too.

“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 in comments she made last month.

The bill next heads to the full Senate for a vote.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)



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