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June 01, 2014

New Hampshire Legislators Narrowly Fail to Repeal the Death Penalty

Hunter Green, Project Intern

On May 22, 2014, the New Hampshire Senate blocked the second attempt in recent months to repeal the death penalty. Although the Senate had tabled repeal legislation just one month earlier, the New Hampshire House of Representatives reintroduced the legislation in May after the news of a botched execution in Oklahoma, hoping to find new support in the state Senate. Repeal legislation would have made New Hampshire the seventh state within the past seven years to abolish capital punishment and the nineteenth state in the country without a death penalty. The state’s recent efforts to repeal the death penalty began in 2000, when a proposed bill abolishing capital punishment passed both chambers of the state legislature but was vetoed by Governor Jeanne Shaheen. In 2009, a similar bill passed the state House of Representative by a 193-174 vote but failed in the state Senate.

Representative Robert Cushing led New Hampshire’s repeal efforts in 2014. He sponsored House Bill 1170, intended to replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Cushing has been an active opponent of capital punishment since his father was murdered in 1988. “I felt that I had the moral obligation to honor my father’s memory and myself by speaking out publicly in opposition of filling another coffin,” said Rep. Cushing.

On March 12, the state House of Representatives passed the repeal legislation by a 225-104 vote. At the hearing, Rep. Cushing stated, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs.” Representative Steve Vaillancourt proposed an amendment to the bill outlawing the execution of any prisoner currently waiting on death row, but it failed by a 245-85 vote. The amendment would have spared the life of New Hampshire’s lone death row prisoner, Michael Addison, convicted in 2008 for the murder of a Manchester police officer. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be for abolishing the death penalty and for killing one person,” said Rep. Vaillancourt.

After the bill’s success in the state House of Representatives, it was sent to the state Senate, comprised of 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats.  On April 17, 2014, the New Hampshire Senate tabled the bill after a 12-12 vote, effectively killing the legislation. Although the proposed legislation would not affect Addison’s status on death row, his situation appeared to have a large effect on the state Senate’s outcome. Senator Jeb Bradley, voting against repeal, stated, “Trying to have it both ways was problematic for proponents of the bill — execute one person but repeal it prospectively. That was a bridge too far for a lot of people.”

Several weeks later, representatives were motivated to retry their efforts by the news of Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in Oklahoma on April 29. Although state senators expressed no interest in reopening the tabled House bill for continued discussion, state representatives reintroduced repeal legislation by amending a Senate bill related to burglary and capital murder, changing the penalty for capital murder from death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. On May 14, the state House of Representatives passed the amended bill by a 218-117 vote. “The events in Oklahoma warrant giving legislators another opportunity this year to get New Hampshire out of the execution business,” said Rep. Cushing.

Eight days later, the New Hampshire Senate rejected the amended Senate bill by a voice vote. “I would urge that we non-concur because we’ve had the debate already. We deadlocked on that debate several weeks ago,” said Sen. Bradley, maintaining his position on the issue.

Despite the failure of this year’s repeal efforts, New Hampshire’s citizens and government leaders have vowed to continue to fight for change. Although New Hampshire remains the only state in New England to uphold the death penalty, it has not executed a prisoner since 1939. As Barbara Keshen, board chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, wrote, “The strong showing we had this year demonstrates that the issue of death penalty repeal is not going away. It’s not a matter of whether it will happen, but when.”

Hunter Green, Project Intern