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Editorial: The Road to Repeal: Death Penalty Calculations in N.H.

New Hampshire stands closer today to abolishing the death penalty than at any time since 2000, when then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a repeal measure that had passed both houses of the Legislature.

Last week, the House overwhelmingly approved an abolition bill, setting the stage for consideration by the Senate. The bill’s prospects there are considered uncertain, but by no means hopeless. Gov. Maggie Hassan, unlike her immediate predecessors, has said she would sign such a bill into law. If this finally comes about, New Hampshire would join an expanding list of states that have done away with capital punishment in recent years, including New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland.

Regrettably, there is one consideration that casts a long shadow over the state’s decision. The bill would not apply retroactively, leaving unchanged the status of the lone occupant of death row in New Hampshire. He is Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a Manchester police officer in 2006.

The House, before approving repeal, rejected by a wide margin an amendment that would have applied the measure retroactively. Its sponsor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, called repeal a “hollow victory” without his amendment and accused his colleagues of trying to score cheap political points.

For her part, Hassan has indicated repeatedly that abolition of the death penalty would not affect Addison’s sentence as far as she is concerned. Just recently she told the Concord Monitor that she would sign his death warrant even if it arrived after capital punishment was abolished.

“I have a deep respect for the criminal justice system in New Hampshire and the people who sat on the Addison jury, and I will respect their verdict,” she explained.

This expression of respect is laudable but beside the point. If the death penalty had not been an option in Addison’s case, the jury could not have imposed it. Moreover, if respect for the jury process is a paramount value, why would the governor pre-empt that process in the future by signing a repeal measure? And if Hassan thinks that, all things considered, the state should not be in the business of taking human life, why would that belief not apply to the sole person for whom it currently makes a difference? When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a repeal measure three years ago despite having been a long-time supporter of capital punishment, he commuted to life without parole the death sentences of all 15 inmates on death row.

More probably, politics are involved in the Hassan position, for worse and for better. She articulated her position on Addison and the death penalty during the 2012 campaign, and could well fear the electoral consequences of abandoning it in a re-election bid this fall. Cop-killers are notoriously unsympathetic figures, as well they should be.

But there is another political dimension that may figure into Hassan’s calculation. In a closely divided Senate, those on the fence might be induced to vote for repeal if Addison is not affected, but might come down on the other side if they thought passing the bill would induce Hassan to commute his sentence to life. So the possible paradox is that Addison’s life may have to be taken in order for the death penalty to be abolished. Whether that would actually happen is debatable, since the state has not executed anyone since 1939 and the constitutionality of Addison’s death sentence is still under review by the state Supreme Court.

There is another way to think about this, though. The case for abolishing the death penalty begins, but does not end, with the argument that it is morally wrong for the state to take a human life. Even those who do not believe that can be persuaded, as the Illinois governor was, that no death penalty system can be devised that eliminates the possibility of error or bias in imposing it. In this context, it is worth noting that Addison is black and that a white man convicted of killing a police officer in 1997 was not sentenced to death. Certainly racial disparities in imposing the death penalty have been widely noted throughout the nation.

Hassan certainly faces a dilemma in this instance, but re-examining Addison’s death sentence in light of all the circumstances, including whether it was fairly imposed in this case, might spare the state from doing the right thing in theory and the wrong one in fact.