Death penalty foes gather to alter attitudes
CONCORD — The state’s death penalty has not been used since 1939, and no one was on death row for decades until Michael Addison was convicted of the murder of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2008.
In 1834, Democratic Gov. William Badger was the first to ask the Legislature to abolish the death penalty, and the 2014 General Court will try again.
Lawmakers, religious leaders, law enforcement and judicial officials, and families of murder victims made their case Thursday to abolish the death penalty in an event to begin a campaign to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire.
Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, whose father was gunned down by an off-duty Hampton police officer, is the prime sponsor of a 2014 bill to abolish capital punishment.
“This is a remarkable effort that cuts across the classic political divide,” said Cushing at a press conference attended by well over 50 people, “to make sure New Hampshire lives without capital punishment.”
He noted in the last election that the two gubernatorial candidates opposed the death penalty.
The 2000 Legislature approved abolishing the death penalty, but former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. In 2010, the House approved abolishing capital punishment but the Senate killed the bill before former Gov. John Lynch could veto it.
Traditionally, abolishing the death penalty is opposed by law enforcement and those who argue people who commit the most heinous crimes do not deserve to live.
But speakers at the press conference said the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder or other violen crimes.
“There is not a wit of evidence that the death penalty deters crime generally,” said former Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy, “no more than the minimum mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”
He and others said that innocent people could be executed and the state would be responsible when that happens.
“Our criminal justice system is a good system, but it is not perfect,” said retired Marlborough Police Chief Raymond Dodge. “It is a system designed and administered by imperfect human beings. Mistakes are inevitable.”
Diocese of Manchester Bishop Peter Libasci and Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire Robert Hirschfeld told why their faith makes them oppose the death penalty.
“The death penalty neither deters others, nor brings the perpetrator to understanding, but instead, in the worst of ironies, publicly validates the very act of taking a human life,” Libasci said. “The death penalty does not help the criminal to understand the magnitude of what he or she has done; it reinforces instead, the terrifying notion that there is ultimately, no sacrilege in the taking of human life.”
Barbara Keshen, NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Chair, said “The death penalty is a failed policy that does nothing to make our communities safer. It is divisive, distracts from real needs of victims, and elevates the story of the killer.”
Keshen, who once served as a criminal prosecutor, said victims tell her the death penalty is a cruel joke that keeps them involved with the criminal justice system year after year and prevents them from going on their lives.
Murphy noted the Addison case has already cost $5 million to prosecute and defend and is expected to cost $10 million before all the appeals are exhausted.
“Why don’t you go to your constituents and tell them you want to spend $1 million to $2 million dollars a year on a program that the only ones getting anything out of it are lawyers,” Murphy said. “What do you think their reaction would be?”
He blasted lawmakers for expanding the death penalty two years ago to include home invasions after the murder of Kimberly Gates in her Mont Vernon home by four teenagers.“That was a knee-jerk reaction if ever there was one,” Murphy said. “The death penalty never would have stopped those kids.”
The repeal is expected to pass the House, but the Senate vote is expected to be close.