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N.H. Senate Votes to Keep Death Penalty

Friday, April 18, 2014
Concord — A divided New Hampshire Senate voted against repealing the death penalty yesterday, ending concerns for some who worried that a repeal would reverse the death sentence of Michael Addison, who was convicted for fatally shooting Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to think and to search our souls about what this means. ... I don’t think repealing the death penalty is going to do what we want,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, who each day wears a pin bearing the badge number of Briggs.

The Senate split 12-12 yesterday. Unable to break a tie, senators voted unanimously to lay the bill on the table, meaning it could come back later this session, although that’s unlikely. Supporters of repeal may continue to lobby individual senators to change their positions.

Among lawmakers representing the Upper Valley, state Sens. Bob Odell, R-New London and David Pierce, D-Lebanon, voted in favor of repeal, while state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, was opposed.

State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, was the lone Democrat to back the death penalty; state Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, was the other Republican who joined Odell in voting for repeal.

Repeal supporters saw a new window of opportunity this year when Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would sign a repeal bill, and when the House passed the legislation.

Former governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a repeal bill in 2000 and in 2011 then-Gov. John Lynch signed a bill expanding the death penalty to include murder during home invasions.

“I thank the Legislature for their open, fair and compassionate consideration of this sensitive issue,” Hassan said in a statement after the vote. “I know that each senator listened to all viewpoints and made a difficult decision.”

Addison, convicted in the 2006 murder of Briggs, is the state’s only death row inmate. The bill’s authors intended it to be prospective, as are all bills that change criminal law, so that it wouldn’t have changed Addison’s sentence.

But U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who prosecuted Addison as attorney general, recently said it was “absurd” to think that repealing the death penalty wouldn’t affect his case. The state Supreme Court upheld Addison’s conviction late last year but has yet to rule on whether his sentence is fair.

No other states that have repealed the death penalty in recent years have since executed anyone on death row. Sen. Bette Lasky, D-Nashua, introduced an amendment specifically saying the bill wouldn’t affect anyone sentenced before July 1 of this year, but that amendment failed 14-10.

During yesterday’s floor debate, several senators supportive of repeal shared the personal reasons for their votes. Beyond weighing their morals, they said the death penalty carries the risk of ending an innocent person’s life and that it has not been shown to deter crime. New Hampshire is the only New England state that still has the death penalty.

“Vengeance is a raw human emotion, but in the end, is it the most effective way to deal with the violence in our society?” Lasky asked. “Let our legacy in this chamber today be one of enlightenment, not death and darkness.”

Sen. David Pierce, D-Lebanon, said he supported the death penalty for many years until he was asked to write a brief justifying a man’s death sentence as a Pennsylvania law clerk in the 1990s.

“I was three people removed from actually pushing that needle myself,” he said. “That forever changed my idea of the death penalty and it continued to weigh on my conscience.”

Sen. Bob Odell, R-New London, was the only Republican aside from bill sponsor Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, to vote in favor of repeal. A longtime supporter of the death penalty, he said he changed his mind because he doesn’t know how he would explain to his grandchildren that the state executed someone.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, spoke at length about her own personal journey toward supporting repeal. She said she first came to believe the death penalty was wrong after writing a paper on it while attending Saint Anselm College. But thinking about Briggs’s murder caused her to struggle with her decision. Ultimately, she chose to vote for repeal but supported the amendment meant to ensure Addison’s sentence would stay.

“I went to the Manchester Police Department and I went there with an open mind. I left that meeting with those police officers shaken to my core,” she said. “I am struggling and have struggled with this decision like nothing else.”

Opponents, however, have argued the death penalty should stay on the books because the state’s statute is narrow and some crimes are so heinous that death is the appropriate sentence. The following types of capital murder can carry a death sentence in New Hampshire: murder of a law enforcement or judicial officer; murder during a burglary, sexual assault, drug deal or kidnapping; murder for hire; and murder while serving a life sentence in prison. New Hampshire last executed someone in 1939, and is unlike states such as Texas that frequently place people on death row.

“I don’t believe, in our case in New Hampshire, there’s a question about innocent people being killed,” said Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. “For that reason, (and) because I believe there are some crimes that are that heinous, I support the death penalty.”

Bradley and D’Allesandro were the only repeal opponents who stood up on the floor to share their views. Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, who voted against repeal, thanked everyone who shared their opinions with him during his personal deliberation and said he had come to peace with his decision.

After the vote, several repeal advocates released statements expressing disappointment about the Senate’s vote. Many of them had been gathered outside the State House and Senate chambers before the vote, holding signs and wearing badges urging senators to repeal the death penalty. Reporters from national media outlets also showed up to cover the vote.

“The world is watching New Hampshire,” Arnie Alpert, spokesman for the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said before the vote.

Several former New Hampshire attorneys general and leaders of different faiths have been actively working in support of repeal. For religious groups, the vote being held this week had even more significance given that it fell the day before Good Friday. In addition to state groups, people from Amnesty International and the World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty also visited the state to speak with lawmakers.

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