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Editorial: Killing people who kill people is wrong

  • Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte testifies Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019, in Concord, N.H., against a bill that would repeal New Hampshire's death penalty. Ayotte, a former attorney general, was the lead prosecutor in the capital murder case of Michael Addison, the state's only death row inmate, who killed a Manchester police officer in 2006. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)


Friday, February 22, 2019

You know that support for the death penalty in New Hampshire is eroding fast when the best that capital punishment proponents can do is to trot out Kelly Ayotte for another round of fearmongering and flimflammery.

Ayotte is the former one-term U.S. senator who, as New Hampshire’s attorney general, was the lead prosecutor in the case of Michael Addison. Addison shot and killed Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2006. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2008. Ayotte made her role in that case a centerpiece of her 2010 campaign for Senate. (Significantly, emails from 2006 between Ayotte and a campaign strategist appeared to show her considering the political implications of the case for her.)

On Tuesday, Ayotte addressed the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which was considering a bill, HB 455, that would end capital punishment in New Hampshire.

“If you repeal the death penalty, I want you to understand that Michael Addison’s sentence will be commuted to life without parole, which would not be just and would send the wrong message to criminals when it comes to killing police officers in the state of New Hampshire,” she said.

Hogwash. First, the bill as written would not apply to Addison. Second, as attorney general, Ayotte was an officer of the justice system, not the vengeance system. Third, life without parole would be the very definition of justice: Those convicted of heinous crimes would be forced to carry the weight of their transgressions for the rest of their days — and, as we have suggested before, perhaps come to a moral awakening, an acceptance of awful responsibility. Finally, how can Ayotte support her assertion that the threat of punishment would send a “message to criminals”?

She can’t, of course. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report shows no correlation between the aggressive application of capital punishment and lower homicide rates, and survey after survey — of the public, of the nation’s leading criminologists, of more than 30 years of research on the issue — has concluded that the death penalty should not be considered an effective deterrent to crime.

Then there’s the malign influence of human error, faulty procedures, bias, dishonesty and politics that has led to more than 160 people being wrongly convicted of capital crimes since 1972. Even more horrifying, serious questions have been raised about more than a dozen executions carried out since 1989. Botched executions bring medieval barbarism to the modern death chamber and traumatize all involved — corrections officials, doctors, nurses, family members and other witnesses. It’s even a pocketbook issue: One estimate put the cost of the Addison case to New Hampshire taxpayers at $5.5 million and counting, compared with $1.4 million for 40 years of incarceration.

New Hampshire is the last state in New England with a capital punishment law still on the books. A repeal effort failed in 2000 when it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. Six months ago, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a measure identical to the one now being considered, and he has indicated that he will do so again. The difference: Last year’s measure passed when the House and the Senate were both were controlled by Republicans, and the effort to override Sununu’s veto fell just two votes short in the Senate. This year, Democrats have a 14-10 majority in the Senate and a 223-167 majority in the House. They will still need substantial Republican support to override a veto, but that seems more likely than ever. According to Hannah Cox of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, Republican support for repealing the death penalty has grown dramatically since 2000. “A verdict is taking shape across the nation,” Cox wrote last week on Newsmax.com, “conservatives have turned against the death penalty.”

Those conservatives include Dan Passen, chair of New Hampshire College Republicans, who tweeted on Tuesday, “There are so many reasons to overturn the death penalty … a moral reason, a small government reason, a Christian reason, a statistical reason, a fiscal reason, a pro-life reason. ...”

Indeed.

On Wednesday, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted, 11-6, to recommend repeal. The bill now moves to the full House and a vote is scheduled for March. Advocates of repeal, who far outnumbered death penalty supporters at Tuesday’s hearing, believe they have the votes needed to override a Sununu veto. At a fundraiser in Hanover last month organized by the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, while advocating caution, told Valley News correspondent Matt Golec, “I think we do have the numbers.”

Let’s hope she’s right. It is long past time that New Hampshire stop threatening to kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.