Editorial: Crime and Punishment

The fact that capital punishment remains a sharply divisive issue in American life was never demonstrated more clearly than earlier this month in the New Hampshire Senate, where a bill to repeal the death penalty failed because the senators were evenly split: 12 supported repeal, and 12 opposed it.

As a result, New Hampshire will continue to be the only New England state with a death penalty statute on the books, even though it has not executed anyone since 1939.

To whatever extent these votes in the Senate were cast as a matter of conscience on both sides of the issue, they must be respected. However, the waters are muddy on this question, and one of the state’s top elected officials muddied them, perhaps for her own ends.

The bill that the Senate voted on would have taken effect prospectively, not retroactively, leaving in place the sentence of the only person on death row in New Hampshire, Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a Manchester police officer in 2006. His conviction has been upheld by the state Supreme Court, which is still reviewing whether the death penalty was fairly imposed in his case.

About a week before the vote in the state Senate, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte weighed in during an appearance on a Manchester radio station. “It seems like in Concord they’re saying, ‘Well, we’re just going to leave the Addison case alone,’ and I think that’s absurd. And I think that these people who are voting on this need to understand that they could be effectively commuting Michael Addison’s sentence,” said Ayotte, a Republican who was elected to the Senate in 2010.

Indeed, no states that have repealed the death penalty in recent years have subsequently executed anyone on death row. But Ayotte’s comments implied that senators would somehow be responsible if that occurred and, by extension, that they would suffer the political consequences.

Ayotte, of course, has an abiding interest in the Addison case, having prosecuted it when she was serving as attorney general. Those with retentive memories may recall that during her campaign for the U.S. Senate, emails surfaced documenting that she had discussed Addison’s case in 2006 with a political operative in the context of her future plans. Using her office email account, Ayotte responded to a message from him that carried the subject line “Get ready to run …” this way: “Have you been following the last 2 Weeks. A police officer was killed and I announced I would seek the death penalty?” To which he responded, “I know. I read about it. Where does AG Ayotte stand on the Death Penalty? BY THE SWITCH.” Several weeks later, she exchanged emails with the same person discussing a possible campaign.

And indeed, Ayotte sought to exploit the case during her Senate campaign, running ads that touted her capacity to make “tough decisions” in the prosecution of Addison. Since the decision to seek the death penalty was made almost immediately following the fatal shooting of Officer Michael Briggs, one wonders exactly how tough they were for Ayotte.

There’s no reason to think Ayotte’s political ambitions have diminished with time, so her continuing electoral interest in having Addison put to death is understandable, if abhorrent. But her radio-program comments seem intended to influence, if not intimidate, elected officials who were deliberating on a grave matter of public policy and individual conscience. Laws are supposed to be made in the best interests of society, without regard for how they affect the circumstances of particular individuals. One only hopes that no senators were dissuaded from supporting repeal by Ayotte’s crass suggestion that they might pay a political price for doing so.