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N.H. Debates Death Penalty Repeal Bill

Concord — Religious leaders, police officers, attorneys and family members of homicide victims urged lawmakers yesterday to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty law.

Dozens of speakers at a three-hour House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing yesterday voiced support for a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty law. They cited moral and religious beliefs and concerns about cost, fairness and the danger of executing an innocent individual.

“I think we all owe a duty of fairness,” said Phil McLaughlin, a former state attorney general, who spoke yesterday about changing his mind on the death penalty.

McLaughlin said his opinion changed after his years as attorney general, and after his son who served in Iraq told him, “Our government shouldn’t kill its own people.”

Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, the lead sponsor of the death penalty repeal bill before the House this year, announced yesterday that more than 100 representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, have added their names as co-sponsors. The bill also has two sponsors in the Senate: Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, and Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua.

Advocates for repealing the death penalty are focusing on the Senate, where previous public statements would suggest members are narrowly divided on the issue.

The bill marks the third time in the past 13 years that the Legislature has considered doing away with the death penalty. In 2000, a repeal bill passed both chambers but did not survive a veto from then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. The House passed a death penalty repeal bill in 2009 that did not receive support in the Senate.

New Hampshire only permits the death penalty for a narrow list of crimes: murder of a law enforcement official; murder for hire, murder during a kidnapping, drug sale, home invasion or rape; and murder while serving a life sentence in prison.

Michael Addison is New Hampshire’s only inmate on death row. He was convicted of the 2006 murder of Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs, and his case is still pending before the state Supreme Court. The bill before the Legislature this year would not affect Addison’s case because it would only apply to crimes committed after the bill became law.

Nick Willard, assistant chief of the Manchester Police Department, led the investigation of Briggs’s murder. He was one of three people to voice support for the existing death penalty law Thursday.

Briggs’s partner, former Manchester police officer John Breckinridge, has spoken out in favor of the repeal. In an op-ed published in the Monitor this week, he said his Catholic faith led him to change his opinion.

Willard, however, said Briggs left behind writings about his support for the death penalty in the case of a murdered police officer.

“It’s emotional to hear the partner of Officer Michael Briggs say he didn’t believe in the death penalty because he found God,” Willard said. “But Michael Briggs did believe in the death penalty, and Michael Briggs found God on Oct. 17, 2006, and he’s been with him ever since.”

Ray Dodge, former chief of the Marlborough Police Department, said he does not support the death penalty.

“Let me be perfectly clear: I have no compassion nor sympathy for those who would murder another,” he said. “This is about a reasonable, rational and fiscally responsible administering of criminal justice here in New Hampshire.”

Chris Casko, an attorney for the state Department of Safety, spoke in favor of the death penalty Thursday.

“New Hampshire has used capital murder very sparingly,” he said. “I think that’s a demonstration of how careful and fair and just the legal system is here. We have not had someone executed since 1939.”

Opponents of the death penalty cited the same fact as a reason to repeal the law. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said the use of the death penalty has declined by 75 percent since 2000. Six states have repealed death penalty laws in the past six years; New Hampshire is one of 32 states that allows the death penalty.

Several speakers Thursday said the criminal justice system is not perfect, and juries can make mistakes.

“An exoneration for someone who is innocent and has been put to death is completely unavailable,” said Gregory Smith, another former New Hampshire attorney general.

Michael Iacopino, speaking for the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the death penalty has a “disproportionate impact on minorities and poor people.”

New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfield and the Rev. Peter Libasci, bishop of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Manchester, both spoke Thursday in favor of repealing the death penalty.

“Repealing the death penalty is a way for the state to counteract and push back against the culture of violence,” Hirschfield said. “Wherever the death penalty is administered by the state, the dignity of all our citizens is diminished.”

Margaret Hawthorn, the mother of murder victim Molly Hawthorn-MacDougall, was one of several family members of homicide victims who asked lawmakers to repeal the death penalty. Hawthorn-MacDougall was shot to death in her home in Henniker in 2010. While the death penalty was not considered in the case, Hawthron said she hopes convicted killer Roody Fleuraguste can honor her daughter’s life by changing his own while spending his life in prison.

“I believe some people are so broken that, for the protection of others, they do need to be contained permanently,” she said. “But I am not convinced that capital punishment contributes to public safety.”

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will make a recommendation on the bill before sending it to the full House for a vote.