Regardless of law, NH not ready to enforce death penalty
CONCORD - As their counterparts across the country grapple with questions raised after a failed execution attempt in Oklahoma, New Hampshire prison officials are beginning to look at how the death penalty would be carried out here.
"We don't have a procedure to follow, a time line for how one would play out," said Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. "I know we've visited some states already to see how they handle them, but it will be new territory for us, since we haven't had one here since 1939."
With just one prisoner, Michael Addison, awaiting execution in New Hampshire and a lengthy appeals process ahead, Lyons said state officials have only recently begun to look at crafting best practices for the procedure.
Addison was sentenced to death in 2008 for gunning down Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs. If his Addison would become the first convict executed in New Hampshire since 1939.
The effort to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire could be picked up again this week, following approval last week of a committee amendment that tacked language onto a bill involving the crime of burglary.
The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and John Cebrowski, R-Bedford, would change the penalty for capital murder from execution by lethal injection or hanging to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole. It would go into effect immediately upon passage.
"The events in Oklahoma warrant giving legislators another opportunity this year to get New Hampshire out of the execution business," said Cushing.
The amendment passed the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, 13-5, with the amended bill passing, 14-4. Cushing said he expects the amended bill to go before the House on Wednesday and, if passed, would return to the Senate for further consideration.
HB 1170, to repeal the death penalty, was approved in the House on March 12. The Senate Judiciary Committee recommended passage, but the bill received a 12-12 tie vote in the Senate on April 17, tabling the measure.
Sen. Lou D'Alessandro, D-Manchester, voted against repealing the death penalty and hasn't changed his mind.
"I don't think the Senate has an appetite to take this up again, but you never know; crazier things have happened," said D'Alessandro. "I haven't seen anything that would cause me to change my vote."
"We know that the death penalty is a difficult topic, a matter of conscience for all legislators," said Cushing. "As with any subject, as new information comes forward, people sometimes change and evolve in their thinking."
Lyons said New Hampshire has no "death row.'' Addison is housed in the state prison's maximum-security unit.
"He is isolated, for the most part," said Lyons.
Lyons said Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn and other prison officials have been looking at protocols put in place in New Hampshire during the 1930s and consulting prison officials in other states to put together a composite of "best practices."
"From that, we'll work with the AG's Office to put together a plan to follow," said Lyons. "When the prisoner's last meal is served, where would it take place? Who would be allowed to view the execution? Right now, we don't have anything in place that spells all that out."
"We haven't started that process yet," said Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice. "It's my understanding the average appeals process in death penalty cases can last between 10 and 20 years. We are years away at this point."
The state does not have a lethal-injection chamber. Lyons said a study in 2010 pegged the price tag for constructing a death chamber at $1.8 million.
"We haven't put in a request for those funds," said Lyons.
Lyons said state law would prevent Addison from being transferred to another state that has a death chamber. The official said the state would most likely carry out an execution in a prison gymnasium instead of building a death chamber for one prisoner.
Lyons noted the state does not have a stock of chemicals used in lethal injections. Most lethal injections performed in the United States involve an anesthetic called sodium thiopental, which renders the prisoner unconscious before two other drugs are administered, one to cause paralysis and the other to stop the heart. A European ban on exporting sodium thiopental has led U.S. execution officials to try using new, untested drugs, reported USA Today. Several of these drugs are being looked at as the cause of the bungled execution attempt in Oklahoma, where a prisoner appeared to regain consciousness 20 minutes after the drugs were administered. He later died of a heart attack.
New Hampshire is one of two states in the country that allows hanging as a method of execution. Title LXII Criminal Code Chapter 630 Homicide, Section 630:5 XIII permits death by hanging if lethal injection cannot be carried out. In Washington state, lethal injection is administered unless an inmate requests to be put to death by hanging.
"Our law does allow for hanging to be used if lethal injection couldn't be," said Lyons.
The last person executed in New Hampshire was Howard Long, an Alton shopkeeper. Long was hanged at the State Prison for Men in Concord on July 14, 1939, after being convicted of killing and sexually assaulting a young boy in Alton. Prior to Long's death, 11 other prisoners had been executed by hanging going back to 1869. Lyons, who said he has researched Long's execution extensively, said the room where he was hanged is now a recreation room for prisoners.
"There wasn't a gallows there," said Lyons. "The rope was slung over a pipe across the ceiling, and a trap door in the floor would open beneath the inmate and the body would drop."
The rope used to hang Long was subsequently cut into pieces and distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state to serve as a reminder of the execution. Lyons said the noose had been hung on a prison wall before it was put away for historical preservation.