March 16. 2018 8:28AM

State Senate votes to repeal death penalty, despite Sununu veto threat

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau


CONCORD — The state Senate voted 14-10 on Thursday to repeal the death penalty, amid heated debate over whether such a move would affect the planned execution of the only convict on death row.

The bill, SB 593, now moves to the House, which has voted in the past to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire, the only New England state with capital punishment still on the books. The Senate deadlocked on the issue 12-12 in 2016 and 2014.

The leading advocate for death penalty repeal in the House, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, watched the debate from the gallery and celebrated the outcome. Cushing’s father was murdered by an off-duty Hampton police officer in 1988.

“This is a historic vote,” he said. “It’s the first time a Republican-controlled Senate has passed a repeal bill in the state’s history. I think it bodes well for the House.”

Gov. Chris Sununu has already said he supports the current death penalty law and will veto the repeal effort if it gets to his desk. The Senate was two votes short of the 16 votes needed to override a veto.

“We’ll see,” said Cushing. “I thought the debate was elevated and senators spoke passionately on both sides of the issue. At the end of the day they sent a clear signal that New Hampshire is now ready to move beyond the death penalty.”

The state’s death penalty has not been used since 1939, and no one was on death row for decades until Michael Addison was convicted in the murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2008.

The prospect of Addison’s sentence being reduced to life in prison without the possibility of parole dominated much of the debate, with opponents of repeal calling for justice on behalf of the officer’s surviving family.

“Anyone who would take the life of a police officer or firefighter in the line of duty deserves this punishment,” said Manchester Democrat Lou D’Allesandro.

The bill states that repeal can only be applied moving forward, suggesting that Addison’s death sentence remains in place even if the bill passes.

But opponents of repeal cited an advisory memo from Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, who said Addison’s sentence would “probably not” remain in place if the death penalty is repealed.

“By your vote today, you are basically wiping that conviction out and converting his death sentence to life in prison,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry.

MacDonald cited court rulings in other states where the death penalty has been repealed, and noted that no convict on death row has ever been executed in a state once it repeals the death penalty.

“While there are strong opposing views on the issue of the death penalty, for me it comes down to just one argument: wrongful conviction that leads to execution,” said state Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, prime sponsor of the bill.

“The taking of innocent life is by far one of the most egregious acts we can ever commit as a society and I am thankful to my colleagues in the Senate for their support on this important step forward in removing the death penalty for capital murder in New Hampshire.”

The vote crossed party lines, with six of 14 Republicans voting in support of repeal, and two of 10 Democrats opposed — D’Allesandro and Kevin Cavanaugh, whose districts include Manchester.

“I’d like to applaud this body for the great debate we’ve had here today,” said Carson. “It is a vote of conscience and how you believe. I don’t believe anyone is going to change anyone’s mind here today, but I do believe in having a full vetting on this issue.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com