For the first time in decades, it appears a bill to repeal the death penalty has enough votes to pass the New Hampshire House and Senate.
The Legislature last passed a death penalty repeal in 2000, when it was vetoed by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he’ll veto this death penalty repeal bill if it reaches his desk because, in his view, “There is no doubt that the most heinous crimes warrant the death penalty.”
Despite the governor’s veto threat, we urge legislators to debate death penalty repeal and then to vote their consciences. If we, as citizens, are going to authorize the state to kill in our names, we should regularly affirm that belief and declare why we think this action is right and just and moral.
The death penalty is a highly emotional topic, particularly for murder victims’ loved ones. The victims’ families, in whose name we pursue justice, do not speak with one voice.
Some believe that putting a convicted murderer to death is justice, while others believe it is simply another act of violence, this time committed by the state, that brings neither emotional closure nor a sense that justice has been done.
New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939. In 2005, John Brooks of Londonderry was convicted of murder for hiring a hitman to kill a Derry handyman. The state pursued capital murder charges but Brooks, who is white and wealthy, was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2008, William Addison, a poor black man, was found guilty of capital murder for the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. Addison was sentenced to death and the New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
He remains on death row pending further appeals of his case. The repeal bill currently before the Legislature is not retroactive and would not affect Addison’s sentence, according to one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren.
In the wake of the two capital murder cases, in 2009 the state created the Commission to Study the Death Penalty in New Hampshire.
The 22-member commission reviewed whether the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime, was levied impartially, its cost, and whether alternative punishments might be equally effective. The committee’s final report found 12 members voting to keep the laws the way they are and 10 members voting for repeal.
The members did not fall predictably along party lines or divide between law enforcement and victims of crime. Those in favor of repeal and those against it brought their own intensely personal analysis to the issue that did not appear overly influenced by their politics or profession.
Seacoast Media Group’s newspapers have consistently called for the repeal of the death penalty, arguing that the risk of human error is too high, that minorities and poor people are disproportionately sentenced to death, that it doesn’t help victims heal, has not been proven a deterrent and is wildly expensive for taxpayers, far more expensive than a prosecution and sentence of life without parole.
Judge Walter Murphy, who chaired the death penalty study commission, and voted with the minority, concluded: “There is no assurance that the death penalty does what its advocates claim is its purpose; nor is there any reason to believe it is necessary for public safety. The alternative, that is, life without the possibility of parole, offers the same protection without the attendant risks of mistakes and without the vast expense both monetary and otherwise.”
Hampton State Rep. Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered in town in 1988, is a sponsor of the bill currently before the Legislature and served on the death penalty commission. In an essay published in 2010, “Why I oppose the death penalty,” Cushing wrote: “I view the death penalty not as a criminal justice sanction, but as a human rights violation. I aspire to live in a society, in a world, where human life is cherished and the dignity of all is respected.”
We urge the House and Senate to give full and serious debate to this issue and when that debate is done, all members should vote their consciences. If the bill passes, Gov. Sununu will do what he thinks is right.
While we obviously side with repeal, the important thing at this time is to have a full and fair debate so that the public understands just what the criminal justice system is doing in our names.