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January 16. 2014 7:01PM

Death penalty repeal backers far outnumber foes at House panel hearing

CONCORD -- Knowing a death penalty repeal finally has a reasonable chance of becoming New Hampshire law this year, backers on Thursday jammed a public hearing, trying to spark momentum for the bill's first hurdle -- passage by the House of Representatives.

Two former attorneys general, several clergy members, including the Bishop Peter Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester, a handful of law enforcement officers and about a dozen lawmakers testified that the death penalty is inhumane, not a deterrent to murder, is too expensive for taxpayers and may even be at odds with the state constitution.

Opponents of repeal, far outnumbered, invoked the most heinous of recent New Hampshire crimes, the 2006 murder of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs and Mont Vernon mother Kimberly Cates, who was murdered during a home invasion in 2009.

The bill would not apply to Briggs' murderer, Michael Addison, who is on death row. But opponents of repeal said the death penalty should remain on the books out of respect for him and warned there is no guarantee a court will not apply a repeal to Addison.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, heard more than three hours of testimony on House bill 1170, but not before, an overflow crowd at the originally scheduled hearing room forced the panel to move the hearing to Representatives Hall in the State House.

The bill has twice passed the House in the recent past, and this year should be no different. In the state Senate, which opposed the most recent repeal attempt in 2009, it is now is viewed as a "50-50" proposition.

The key factor is that Gov. Maggie Hassan, unlike her most recent predecessors of both political parties backs repeal, and, while she is not expected to lobby strongly for it, she is expected to sign the bill if it reaches her desk.

Prime sponsor and long-time repeal advocate Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, whose father was gunned down in 1988 by an off-duty police officer, said the bill has nine House and two Senate sponsors. Thursday, he submitted the names of 107 House co-sponsors, of both political parties.

In 2009, the House passed repeal but the Senate killed it. In 2000, a repeal bill passed the House and the Senate, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Although 32 states have the death penalty and 18 do not, Cushing noted that six state have abolished the death penalty in the past six years, indicating, he and other repeal advocates said, a national trend.

Rep. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, put the issue in basic terms.

"Two wrongs don't make a right, my Mom always told me that," she said. "What would Jesus do? I don't think he'd support" a death penalty.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester played the audio of a network news report of the mistaken execution of Carlos DeLuna in Texas in 1989.

Later found to have not committed the crime, Vaillancourt said, "We make mistakes. Police prosecutors make mistakes. In the name of Carlos DeLuna, please pass this bill.

State Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, a sponsor, cited a phrase in Article 18 of the New Hampshire Constitution that states, "The true design of all punishments being to reform, not to exterminate mankind."

Rep. Kathleen Souza, R-Manchester, a long-time pro-life advocate, said that just as government does not have a right to "take the lives of innocent unborn children," it "does not have the right to sit in judgment" of others, even murderers, and take their lives.

But Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, strongly opposed repeal, saying she was prompted to run for the House by the attack on Kimberly Cates and her daughter Jaime, who eventually recovered from massive injuries.

In 2011, lawmakers passed and Gov. John Lynch signed into law an expansion of the state's capital murder statute to include those convicted of murder during home invasions, she noted.

Former Attorney General Philip McLaughlin said he favored capital punishment for most of his life, but, "I have changed my mind."

He said his son, a U.S. Marine who has seen combat in the Middle East and "is not wish-washy about matters of life and death, said to me, 'My government shouldn't kill its own people, Dad.'"

He was also moved by the children of Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop, who were murdered in 2001.

At the sentencing hearing, McLaughlin said, they "spoke of their compassion for their folks in loving memory and never uttered a word in retribution."

Fellow former Attorney General Gregory Smith said that after spending many years a prosecutor, "I do not believe the death penalty does anything to add to public safety or protections for the citizens of New Hampshire."

But Manchester Assistant Chief of Police Nicholas Willard, speaking on behalf of the department, said that unlike the attorneys general, "I have been to these murder scenes and investigated murder first-hand," including the Briggs murder.

While Briggs' partner, retired Officer John Breckenridge, now favors repeal on religious grounds, Willard said he was "speaking on behalf of the Briggs family."

He said Briggs, before he died, expressed support for the death penalty for the murderer of his former Epsom Police Department partner, Officer Jeremy Charron, who was shot and killed in a gun battle in 1997.

When the Attorney General's Office decided not to seek the death penalty in the Charron case, "Michael Briggs, in his own handwriting, had an issue with that," said Willard.

"It's important that the Briggs family is represented and that Mike Briggs have just as much of a voice in this as John Breckenridge," Willard said.

Also opposing repeal was the New Hampshire Department of Safety. Agency attorney Christopher Casko said the state "has one of the lowest murder rates in the country, and we feel the existing law is supportive of that."

Casko said that while the bill would not apply repeal to the Addison case, "We have legal concerns that the Supreme Court might disagree. If the bill passes, capital punishment will be abolished and that sentence may not be able to be legally carried out.

"We agree with the majority of law enforcement that this bill should not be passed," said Casko said. "We believe there are a few offenses so unbelievably deliberate and egregious that society should retain the option of imposing the ultimate penalty."

But criminal defense attorney Michael Iacopino said the penalty "cannot be equitably applied and has a disproportionate impact on minorities and poor people.

He also noted the Addison case has cost the state $7 million so far.

"It just costs too much" to impose the penalty, he said.

Larry Vogelman, a veteran criminal defense attorney and cofounder of the non-profit Innocence Project, said, "I am pleading to this committee for the future. I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men."

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