CONCORD — In an emotionally charged chamber with advocates on both sides watching, the Senate split 12-12 Thursday on repealing the death penalty which effectively kills the bill.
Police officers who have long opposed repeal packed the Senate gallery for the debate, while repeal supporters surrounded the State House prior to the Senate session and lined the hallway outside the Senate chamber.
"This is probably the most difficult vote any of us will take," said Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, who supported repeal but acknowledged she met with Manchester police who had lost their colleague, Michael Briggs, when he was murdered by the state's only death row inmate, Michael Addison, in 2006.
"This is all about people changing their minds," said the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who said conversations will continue with Senators over the next few weeks.
As about 100 death penalty repeal supporters silently marched outside the State House and members of the Manchester Police Department hierarchy were seen in the front row of the standing-room-only Senate gallery, senators debated the widely watched and awaited decision.
The debate on HB 1170
, to repeal the death penalty, began around 10:15 a.m. with Nashua Democratic Sen. Bette Lasky, one of 12 co-sponsors of the bill, offering an amendment that was defeated. Lasky's amendment would have exempted Addison from having his sentence commuted to life.
Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to pass House Bill 1170, which was approved in the House March 12 by 225-104, a better than two-to-one margin. Committee member Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, missing from the initial Tuesday 2-2 tie vote of the committee because of a previous commitment, cast the deciding vote last week to recommend the bill go to the Senate floor.
The chairman of the judiciary committee, Sen. Sharron Carson, R-Londonderry, had concerns that passing the bill would prevent the state from carrying out the death sentence on Addison, who was convicted of capital murder of Manchester Officer Briggs in 2006.
Under the bill, Addison's death sentence would not have changed, according to the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, noting that state law forbids changing any sentence that occurred prior to a law's repeal. He said the state Supreme Court ruled on the issue in its 2014 opinion in New Hampshire v. Kurt Carpentino.
But former Attorney General and current U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., expressed fears that the law, if it was repealed, would have allowed Addison's sentence to be commuted. Ayotte, as attorney general, helped prosecute Addison's case, and has previously refuted the contention that repealing the death penalty would have no effect on Addison's death sentence for killing Briggs.
"I think that is absurd. These people who are voting on this need to understand they could effectively be commuting Michael Addison's sentence — or reducing his sentence for having killed Michael Briggs in the line of duty," Ayotte said on a radio call-in show last week. "I think that is wrong. I think it is sending the absolute wrong message. That may be a good political explanation, but it is not a good legal explanation."
The debate was expected to be decided by one or two senators.
The 12 sponsors of the bill include House members Robert Cushing, Carol Williams, Mary Jane Wallner, Melanie Levesque and Andrew White, all Democrats, with John Cebrowski, Steve Vallaincourt, Robert Rowe, Mark Warden and Kathleen Souza, all Republicans, along with Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, and Lasky in the Senate.
Cataldo had predicted earlier in the day that it appeared the bill did not have enough votes in the Senate and he expected it to be tabled.
New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939. Addison is the only New Hampshire inmate on death row.