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Richard Guerriero: Dear legislators: This is why the death penalty should be abolished



For the Monitor
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I am no stranger to homicide, the death penalty, crime, punishment or the law. I know these subjects from many different perspectives. I am a lawyer who has defended death penalty cases, including two of New Hampshire’s most well-known cases and several cases in Louisiana. But I have also lost a family member to homicide and, when I was a child, I had violent felonies committed against me. As a teenager, I visited my father behind bars. Fresh out of law school, I was at Angola State Prison on the night of an electrocution.

Of course, my experiences do not give me “the answers.” I do not profess to know or fully understand what anyone else has experienced or how anyone else feels. I do not claim that I am the authority on right and wrong. Still, I feel compelled, because of the beliefs I have come to hold, to ask that you consider my thoughts on the issue of whether our government should kill a person who has been convicted of capital murder.

I believe the death penalty is wrong for the simple reason that it is wrong to kill another human being when it is not necessary to protect human life. I believe the only moral justification for taking a life is to save an innocent life.

I have read lots of letters and editorials about why the death penalty should be abolished, but, honestly, I do not agree with most of them. For example:

– The death penalty is not wrong only because it is racist. Certainly, there is racial bias in how our nation imposes the death penalty. A black man who kills a white person is far more likely to get the death penalty. That inequity is a good policy reason to abolish the death penalty, but it is not the reason why the death penalty is wrong. The death penalty would still be wrong even if the capital sentencing process was racially neutral.

– The death penalty is not wrong only because of the risk of executing an innocent person. To be sure, that risk is huge, and likely we have already executed more than one innocent person. Yet, that flaw in the system is not the reason the death penalty is morally wrong. The death penalty would still be wrong if we knew for certain that we were only executing those guilty of the worst crimes.

– The death penalty is not wrong only because it costs too much. Of course, every capital case costs taxpayers a fortune, but cost is not what makes the death penalty wrong. It would be wrong if it was cheap. It would be wrong if it turned a profit. Cost is an important practical consideration in our everyday lives, but I don’t think too many of us base our most important moral decisions on cost. We’re not honest because it saves money. We don’t respect the rights of others because it’s good for our wallets.

– The death penalty is not wrong only because it is randomly applied, even though that is demonstrably true. If a defendant commits a murder in a really “blue” state, like Massachusetts, there is no chance of the death penalty. If a defendant commits capital murder in a conservative county in a really “red” state, like Texas, then the chances of being sentenced to death skyrocket.

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. Our country’s failure to devise a fair system for imposing capital punishment is not the ultimate reason New Hampshire should repeal the death penalty. For me, the ultimate reason is more important and more obvious.

Like most people in our country, I am not a turn-the-other-cheek pacifist. If I am threatened, or if my family is threatened, and I have no choice, then I will fight back. If any citizen faces a life-threatening attack and must respond with deadly force to stop the attack, most of us would say, “There was no choice.” We instinctively recognize the moral necessity of self-defense and of defending those we are charged with protecting. This is also what most of us teach our children – if you did not start the fight, and if you truly cannot avoid the threat, and if it really is necessary to defend yourself, then defend yourself.

But what we do not teach our children is to hurt another human being when it is not necessary. When the threat is imminent, and the response is necessary, then yes, do what is you have to do, but otherwise, hurting another person is wrong. I do not know a parent or teacher or police officer or anyone else who teaches their children that, if they have been harmed by someone but the person is no longer a threat, they should make a plan to hurt that person later. The laws enacted by you, our legislators, certainly prohibit that kind behavior. We all sometimes feel a desire for revenge, but we know, and have made it our law, that it is murder for one person to kill another person simply for revenge.

So, if it is wrong for one of us to kill another person when it is not necessary to protect life, if that kind of behavior is against the law for every single citizen, and if we teach our children that kind of behavior is wrong, then how can it be right for our government?

There are many policies we should support to protect society against criminal conduct. Effective law enforcement, including locking up violent criminals, protects us in the most immediate and practical sense. Providing all citizens better educational opportunities, more social services and reducing poverty would help, too, if we funded those efforts properly. We should use all of these tools to address the problem of crime, but we should not punish one murder by authorizing the government to commit another.

The only moral justification for taking a life is saving an innocent life. Maybe I am wrong, but I think many of you share the same moral values that I do. If you agree with me, I urge you to override the governor’s veto.

(Richard Guerriero is an attorney who has practiced law for 34 years. He lives in Keene.)