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N.H. House overrides Sununu’s death penalty repeal veto

Associated Press
Published: 5/23/2019 4:41:41 PM
Modified: 5/23/2019 4:46:08 PM

CONCORD — The New Hampshire House again moved to eliminate state’s death penalty on Thursday, overriding the governor’s veto by the slimmest possible margin and sending the issue on to the Senate.

With 247 voting in favor and 123 opposed, override supporters just met the necessary two-thirds majority needed to keep the repeal effort alive. The Senate, which could take up the veto as early as next week, voted 17-6 in favor of the bill last month, and if that tally holds, capital punishment will be repealed.

In making their arguments on Thursday, several lawmakers told personal and sometimes tearful stories, while others invoked everything from the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, the late South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and Pamela Smart, serving a life sentence for recruiting her teenage lover to kill her husband in 1990.

Rep. Susan Ticehurst, D-Tamworth, drew a line from an ancestor who was hanged as a suspected witch in 1692 after what was considered a fair trial at the time to the exonerated former death row inmates who traveled to New Hampshire to testify on the bill.

“How long will we go on believing in our own infallibility? How many other innocent people will be allowed to be killed in the name of justice?” she said. “Fellow representatives, we make a lot of mundane decisions here and this is not one of them. This is an opportunity to end the centuries-old practice of putting innocent people to death.”

New Hampshire’s death penalty applies in only seven scenarios: the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer or judge; murder for hire; murder during a rape, certain drug offenses, or home invasion; and murder by someone already serving a life sentence without parole. The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, and the repeal bill would not apply retroactively to Michael Addison, who killed Manchester Officer Michael Briggs and is the state’s only inmate on death row. But death penalty supporters argued courts might interpret it differently, however, giving Addison a chance at life in prison.

“I don’t believe that’s fair to the victim’s family, if I know what we do today is going to be used to try to overturn that sentence,” said Rep. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem. He also argued that the state should preserve the death penalty even in the event of federal crimes, like the Boston Marathon bombing.

“If a terrorist were to commit mass murder in this state, I wouldn’t want to rely on the federal government to bail us out. I’d like to think in this state, we can take care of our own business,” he said.

Gov. Chris Sununu said he was disappointed by the vote and encouraged lawmakers to listen to law enforcement and the victims of violent crime when deciding how to vote.

New Hampshire has always used the death penalty “with great prudence and responsibility,” he said during a stop on Thursday in Canaan.

“It was great to see that the vote was close and I think that will send a clear message to the Senate that you can’t play politics with these types of issues,” Sununu added. “This is something I hope they take a good, hard look at and I’m optimistic that we can hold off a full overturn of the veto in the Senate.”

Rep. Max Abramson, R-Seabrook, mentioned several non-capital murder cases — including Pamela Smart — to argue that the possibility of wrongful convictions should take the death penalty off the table. But Rep. Mark Pearson, a minister, said there was no compelling reason “theologically, ethically, morally, socially or practically” to change the law.

“Our death row is not filled with people. The death sentence is not used racially. We will never find that DNA testing will later indicate we’ve executed an innocent person. Ours is not the death penalty that many of us with anger and shame remember from decades ago and is practiced in less enlightened states,” said Pearson, R-Hampstead.

Rep. David Welch’s voice broke with emotion as he described his change of heart on the death penalty after his wife’s death several years ago. While his support for law enforcement remains steadfast, he said he can’t support putting other families — including the relatives of those executed — through the same kind of grief. The debate was capped off by Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who first spoke up on the issue more than 20 years ago.

He described being inspired by his five-month-old daughter watching from the gallery that day, and by taking her to hear Mandela speak in Massachusetts later that year.

“The death penalty doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for victims. It doesn’t work for society,” he said. “It’s time to let that go.”

While he generally only votes in the event of a tie, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff voted to override the veto. He told reporters that as a former law enforcement officer, he supported the death penalty for the first four of his eight terms in the House, but changed his mind over time in part after speaking to religious leaders.

“I came to the conclusion that it really is barbaric and it’s time to repeal it,” said Shurtleff, D-Concord.

Lawmakers representing the Upper Valley largely voted to override the governor’s veto on Thursday.

Those voting in favor included Reps. Richard Abel, D-Lebanon; Joshua Adjutant, D-Ashland; Susan Almy, D-Lebanon; Polly Campion, D-Hanover; John Cloutier, D-Claremont; Francesca Diggs, D-Rumney; Roger Dontonville, D-Enfield; Karen Ebel, D-New London; Susan Ford, D-Easton; Ned Gordon, R-Bristol; Timothy Josephson, D-Canaan; Kevin Maes. D-Rumney: Gary Merchant, D-Claremont; Vincent Paul Migliore, R-Bridgewater; Mary Jane Mulligan, D-Hanover; Garrett Muscatel, D-Hanover; Sharon Nordgren, D-Hanover; Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield; Denny Ruprecht, D-Landaff; Laurel Stavis, D-Lebanon; George Sykes, D-Lebanon; Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills and Dan Wolfe, R-Newbury.

Meanwhile, legislators voting to sustain the governor’s veto included Reps. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill; Thomas Laware, R-Charlestown; Gates Lucas, R-Sunapee; Andrew O’Hearne, D-Claremont; Skip Rollins, R-Newport; Steven Smith, R-Charlestown; Walter Stapleton, R-Claremont.

Rep. John Callum, R-Unity, was excused from the vote.

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