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NH Repeals Death Penalty, Overriding Governor's Veto

The state is the latest to repeal its death penalty, as the state Senate had enough votes to override Gov. Chris Sununu's veto

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    Death Penalty Repealed in New Hampshire

    New Hampshire lawmakers voted Thursday to repeal capital punishment - a law that has been on the books for 185 years.

    (Published Thursday, May 30, 2019)

    New Hampshire, which hasn't executed anyone in 80 years and has only one inmate on death row, on Thursday became the latest state to abolish the death penalty when the state Senate voted to override the governor's veto.

    The repeal takes effect immediately.

    The Senate vote came a week after the 400-member House voted by the narrowest possible margin to override Republican Gov. Chris Sununu's veto of a bill to repeal capital punishment.

    "Now it's up to us to stop this practice that is archaic, costly, discriminatory and final," said Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline.

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    Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, introduced the first repeal bill 21 years ago and has been fighting ever since.

    "I feel it's a watershed moment in the history of New Hampshire," said Cushing. "Thinking about what you do in the aftermath of murder is not an intellectual activity for me, it's part of my life."

    Cushing's father was shot to death in their home and his brother died almost exactly the same way.

    "I miss my father, I love my father, but a ritual killing of the person who took his life doesn't do anything for me, it doesn't honor his life," Cushing said.

    With New Hampshire's action, 29 states allow capital punishment, but in four of them, governors have issued moratoriums on the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Twenty-one states have abolished or overturned it.

    New Hampshire's death penalty applies in only seven scenarios: the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer or judge, murder for hire, murder during a rape, certain drug offenses, or home invasion and murder by someone already serving a life sentence without parole.

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    The state hasn't executed anyone since 1939, and the repeal bill would not apply retroactively to Michael Addison, who killed Manchester Officer Michael Briggs and is the state's only inmate on death row. But death penalty supporters argued that courts will interpret it differently, giving Addison a chance at life in prison.

    "If you think you're passing this today and Mr. Addison is still going to remain on death row, you are confused," said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry. "Mr. Addison's sentence will be converted to life in prison."

    Carson argued that New Hampshire has a narrowly drawn law and a careful, deliberative process to ensure innocent people are not executed.

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    "This is not Louisiana of the 1920s where Old Sparky was put on a flatbed truck and driven from prison to prison and people were executed. We are not those people," she said. "That doesn't happen here in New Hampshire."

    The past president of the New Hampshire Police Association called the repeal an injustice not only to Briggs but to the rest of the law enforcement community.

    "We feel confident that because of today's vote, Michael Addison's sentence will be changed to that of life without parole," said Officer Patrick Cheetham.

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    For Cushing, that's OK. He says, "an eye for an eye" is no way to govern a civilized state.

    "This day will be looked back upon by others as a day New Hampshire stood up for human rights," said Cushing.

    The Senate vote, 16-8, was exactly the two-thirds majority necessary to override the veto. Twelve Democrats and four Republicans supported ending the death penalty, while six Republicans and two Democrats voted to keep it. The latter included Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, who represents the district in which Officer Briggs was killed. He urged his colleagues to remember law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day.

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    "I can't abandon these people," he said. "These people are there for us. They're there for us, and I believe strongly we have to support them."

    Sununu, who vetoed the repeal bill surrounded by officers at a community center named for Briggs, said Thursday he was incredibly disappointed in the vote.

    "I have consistently stood with law enforcement, families of crime victims, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty because it is the right thing to do," he said in a statement.

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    Former New Hampshire Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte blasted the state Senate on Twitter following Thursday's vote. 

    "Very disappointed and angry that the NH senate failed to sustain the Governor's veto of the death penalty repeal. Police killer Michael Addison is the happiest about their vote today," she said. "NH senators chose to give Addison a pass for killing Officer Michael Briggs sad day for public safety in NH." 

    But Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, a former FBI agent, said while he greatly respects law enforcement, the death penalty is at odds with his pro-life principles. He called execution a "ghastly" process and urged his colleagues to "move our civilization" past it.

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    "I think we're better than that," he said. "I choose to move our state forward to remove the death penalty."

    The ACLU of New Hampshire issued a statement praising the Senate vote. 

    "The death penalty is not right, it is not fair, it is not a deterrent, and now, it is not an option going forward in New Hampshire," said Devon Chafee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. "Today is a tremendous victory for all who have worked for decades to repeal the death penalty."

    New Hampshire lawmakers have been considering and rejecting repeal efforts for the last two decades.

    Former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, vetoed a similar bill in 2000. Another Democrat, former Gov. John Lynch, signed a bill in 2011 expanding the death penalty to cover home invasions in response to a machete and knife attack that killed a woman and maimed her daughter in Mont Vernon.