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Editorial: 'A Matter of Conscience' Or a Matter of Convenience?

Legislative opponents of the New Hampshire death penalty are hopeful that a change of governors will open the door to eventual abolition, as Maggie Hassan replaces John Lynch.

Their optimism is understandable. Lynch believes in capital punishment, and during his four terms in office not only vowed to veto a repeal, but also signed into law an expansion of the death penalty to include murders committed in the course of a home invasion.

Hassan, a fellow Democrat, holds the opposite view. As the Concord Monitor reported recently, the governor-elect said several times during the campaign that she opposes the death penalty as “a matter of personal conscience and faith.”

Remarkably, however, neither Hassan nor her potential legislative allies seem inclined to exercise their conscientious objection on behalf of the only person in New Hampshire actually affected by the death penalty at present — Michael Addison, whose 2008 death sentence is now under appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Hassan has made it clear, according to the Monitor, that she has no intention of commuting Addison’s death sentence to life in prison without parole.

“It was the law on our books in New Hampshire when he was convicted of his crime, and I do trust and believe in our criminal justice system and our courts system,” Hassan said during a televised debate during the Democratic primary campaign.

This strikes us as a rather narrow and legalistic view of what Hassan regards as a matter of conscience. If one believes as an article of faith that it is morally wrong for the state to take a life, then the fact that the death penalty was on the books at the time the crime was committed does not seem to us to weigh decisively in the balance. Similarly, a legislator working on repeal legislation that could be introduced in the next legislative session says he does not expect that any bill would be made retroactive (although, according to a University of New Hampshire Law School professor, it could be). “In some ways, it’s a cleaner bill,” said Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democratic working on repeal. “It’s talking about the future rather than what transpired in the past.”

Let’s be clear here: “The past” in this case is horrible. Addison is a notorious cop-killer. He was convicted of killing a respected Manchester police officer in 2006 as the officer tried to arrest him on robbery charges. In other words, Addison’s case is precisely of the heinous kind that supporters of the death penalty point to in arguing why capital punishment must be available to society.

On the other hand, Addison’s case also raises issues about whether the death penalty is, or can be, applied even-handedly. Addison is black; the officer he killed was white, a combination of offender and victim that studies have shown significantly raises the odds that a defendant will be sentenced to death. And the trial was held in the community where the shooting took place, amid widespread publicity. And so on.

Given that no one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939 and the state maintains no facilities to carry out capital punishment, there’s reason to believe that the state’s death penalty is largely symbolic. If the Legislature and the new governor do away with it, they also need to explain more convincingly why it should continue to apply to the only person for whom it is not symbolic.