House bill proposes end to death penalty in New Hampshire

by Andrew Culver | 3/1/19 3:05am

The state legislature will vote soon on a bill that would repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire. 

The legislature previously voted last year to pass an identical measure, which was vetoed by Republican governor Chris Sununu.

House Bill 455 would change the state’s punishment for capital murder from death to life imprisonment without parole. Under current New Hampshire law, the death penalty can be applied in cases of the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer; murder for hire; murder associated with felonious sexual assault, certain drug offenses or home invasion; and murder committed by an individual already serving a life sentence without parole. 

New Hampshire currently has one individual on death row for the murder of a police officer, but the bill is a “go forward” law, according to Rep. David Meuse (D-Rockingham), meaning that the current inmate could still be executed if the new law passes. 

The bill was approved by 11-6 in the criminal justice and public safety committee with an ought to pass recommendation, according to Meuse, who is a member of the committee.

While the bill has a near-even split of Democratic and Republican sponsors and has garnered widespread bipartisan support, there is still strong debate over the measure.

Proponents of the bill see the death penalty as an antiquated and ineffective form of punishment.

“The death penalty is really the only law we have in New Hampshire where the sole focus is on retribution,” Meuse said. “The focus is not on rehabilitation, it’s not about public safety, it’s not really about justice or deterrent of crime. It’s basically a government form of revenge.”

Rep. Mary Jane Mulligan (D-Grafton) said that the bill contains a moral hypocrisy “to kill someone because they killed someone.”

“As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye will make the world go blind,’” Mulligan said. 

Those supporting the measure also looked to the practical issues associated with an execution in New Hampshire. 

In addition to not having a death chamber in the state, constructing the facilities needed to carry out an execution in New Hampshire would cost around 1.7 million dollars, Meuse said. According to Mulligan, this financial burden would be borne by New Hampshire taxpayers.

Mulligan also said that there is no evidence that the death penalty deters anyone from committing a crime. 

“There is data that suggests the murder rate went down in North Carolina after [the state] stopped ... using the death penalty,” she said. 

However, those opposing the measure view the death penalty ase a necessary instrument to deter those already serving life sentences without parole from committing further crimes. 

“If you have a person in jail with life without parole, that person could kill somebody else in the jail, another prisoner or a guard, and not have it any worse than they did the day before,” Rep. Dave Testerman (R-Merrimack) said.  

Testerman also noted that there is a high bar for serving the death penalty in New Hampshire. 

“New Hampshire is very judicious in its use of the death penalty,” he said. “It is only used in the most heinous of cases.”

Kelly Ayotte, a former U.S. senator and New Hampshire attorney general, was the lead prosecutor against the state’s only death row inmate, Michael Addison. Ayotte testified against the bill before the criminal justice and public safety committee and similarly argued that without the death penalty, criminals who had already committed crimes worthy of a life sentence would face no deterrent from committing further crimes, as was the case when Addison killed Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2006.

In the committee hearing, around five people testified against the bill while nearly 50 testified in favor of the measure, Meuse said. 

However, Testerman noted that the testimonies may not reflect the nuances of capital punishment in New Hampshire because many people who testified were from states where the death penalty “is maybe not as judiciously used” as it is in New Hampshire.

“I just think that the death penalty is something we need to have in our books,” Testerman said. “We need to be very judicious about it, and I think we are.”

Testerman also called out pro-abortion legislators who oppose the death penalty as “willing to take the life of an innocent but not a convicted person.”

Despite their differences in opinion, Meuse, Mulligan and Testerman agreed that HB 455 would likely pass the House and move onto the Senate, where it is also likely to pass. If confirmed by the Senate, the bill would then go to Sununu’s desk. 

“The question will be whether or not the governor will veto it, and I suspect he will,” Testerman said. 

A vote of two-thirds of the legislators in each house is required to override the expected veto.

“I don’t believe [the legislature] can override the veto when it comes back to the House and Senate,” Testerman said. 

However, Meuse said he was “cautiously optimistic” there would be enough votes to override the veto after the 2018 elections.