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State House Dome: House committee to vote on repealing death penalty

State House Bureau

February 08. 2014 9:31PM

One of the first hurdles to repealing the state's death penalty law comes this week when the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee votes on the bill and makes its recommendation to the House.

The public hearing on House Bill 1170 drew a crowd last month, almost all in favor of repeal, including the Catholic church, family members of some murder victims and the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Robert "Renny" Cushing, D-Hampton. Cushing's father was shot and killed by an off-duty Hampton police officer in 1988.

Some traditional supporters of the death penalty also came out in support of repeal, including several retired police officers, a retired superior court judge and two former attorneys general, Phil McLaughlin and Gregory Smith. They had supported the death penalty when they served as the state's leading law enforcement officer.

When former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen introduced McLaughlin at a 1997 press conference, he was asked whether he supported the death penalty. A relative unknown in political circles at the time, McLaughlin was somewhat vague about his stand, but eventually said he did support it.

Later that year, he was criticized for not seeking capital murder charges against the men who gunned down Epsom police Officer Jeremy Charron. Charron's murder had ended a hellish week for law enforcement that began with the Carl Drega rampage. In 1997, Drega shot to death four people, including two state troopers.

At last month's committee hearing, McLaughlin said he had changed his mind about the death penalty. He said he was moved by the children of Dartmouth College professors Half and Susanne Zantop, who were murdered in 2001. He said they "spoke of their compassion'' at the sentencing hearing for the Zantops' teenage killers "and never uttered a word in retribution."

Perhaps the most ardent opposition to repealing the capital murder statute came from Manchester Assistant Police Chief Nick Willard, who spoke on behalf of the department and the family of slain Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs. He said Briggs supported the death penalty for the murderers of his former partner, Charron.

"It's important that the Briggs family is represented and that Mike Briggs have just as much of a voice in this as John Breckenridge," Willard said. Briggs' Manchester partner, retired Officer John Breckenridge, testified in favor of repealing the death penalty on religious grounds.

The status of Michael Addison, who sits on death row for Briggs' murder, would not change if the death penalty was repealed.

The prospect for repeal has supporters buoyed largely because Gov. Maggie Hassan said she supports repeal, something no recent governor has said.

The House and Senate approved repealing the death penalty when Shaheen was governor, but she vetoed the bill and lawmakers failed to override.

Several years ago, the House approved repeal, but the Senate let the bill die after former Gov. John Lynch said he would veto it.

Cushing, who is vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he thinks it will pass the committee.

"People are changing their mind, they're taking stock. Supporters of the death penalty are moving toward repeal," Cushing said. "The closer people get and examine it, the more they realize it just doesn't work."

With no threat of a veto, the highest hurdle appears to be the Senate. Cushing is also optimistic about the bill's chances there.

The bill has some Republican support, which it will need because a couple of Senate Democrats oppose repeal.

Tuesday will be the first step in what is bound to be a journey that will continue until the session ends in June.


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GAMBLING OUTLOOK: After a four-hour public hearing, the outlook for the main gambling bill House Bill 1633 is questionable at best when the House Ways and Means Committee takes the first vote on the bill sometime in the next four weeks.

Last week I wrote the committee had to decide this week, which it does not because it is not going to a second committee as most other casino gambling bills have done.

Instead, House leaders decided the House Finance Committee would not need to review the bill because state funds would not be necessary until after the current biennium.

However, that does not improve HB 1633's chances within the committee.

The chair and vice chair, Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, and Patricia Lovejoy, D-Stratham, both oppose casino gambling and were leaders in the charge to defeat Senate Bill 152 last year.

The prime sponsor of HB 1633, Rep. Richard Ames, D-Jaffrey, as much as acknowledged the committee might be stacked against him at the public hearing last week saying, "There are definitely people - and this is true on either side - who are committed to their position."

However, the committee's recommendation on this one is not as important as the House vote before the end of March.

Last year, the gambling industry lobbyists were everywhere working the rooms. Also many lawmakers believed the fix was in last year for Millennium Gaming and Rockingham Park, and their representatives were everywhere.

At the public hearing last week, Millennium's representatives were there, but did not speak nor did any of the other industry types who would stand to benefit.

One of the bill sponsors, Rep. Katherine Rogers, D-Concord, noted the bill starts with more support in the House than previous attempts.

The strategy appears to be to let momentum build from within the House - if it does - rather than from outside.

At a press conference last week, supporters unveiled more than 100 people behind the bill, which is a good base, but it is not the 180 or so votes that will be needed to pass it.

The kitchen will become much hotter as the vote draws near and then we will see where the chips fall.


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GUN BILLS: The House votes this week on a bill requiring background checks for all commercial sales of firearms.

Currently, background checks are done for sales through licensed dealers and inter-state sales.

The new version of House Bill 1589 would include private sales at gun shows, flea markets, etc., but exempts sales between individuals who know each other and who know the other individual is not prohibited from having firearms. Federal law precludes felons, anyone involuntarily committed to a mental institution or found incompetent to manage their own affairs, or someone under a domestic protective order from buying a gun.

While supporters say HB 1589 merely requires that sales be done through a licensed dealer, second amendment advocates say it is far worse than that.

Instead, they say the bill is too vague and will result in law abiding citizens slapped with criminal charges.

The House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee voted 10-8 for the bill, which is bound to have a lengthy debate before the House Wednesday.

Another bill, Senate Bill 244, would require the state to add people with court-determined mental illness to the federal list of those prohibited from purchasing guns - a list that licensed dealers use for background checks.

The bill also includes a process for removing a person from the prohibited gun list if he or she is cured, which is one reason several gun rights group supported it.

After much discussion, senators decided the bill should now be a study committee to further delve into the issue.

SB 244 has yet to come to the Senate for a vote and is not on the agenda for Thursday's session.

Both bills drew large crowds as have work sessions, particularly for HB 1589 including a You Tube video.

Despite great expectations at the beginning of the session for tougher gun laws in light of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., school massacre, gun control proponents are likely to have little to show for their legislative efforts by the end.


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ROAD TOLL: If you thought buying one of those new natural gas powered vehicles would let you skip the gas tax, think again.

The House Public Works Committee voted 15-0 that alternative fuel vehicle owners should pay a road toll - read tax - for compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas and propane.

The Department of Transportation would have to determine what the equivalent tax would be.

Committee member Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, said to lawmakers, "When the road toll concept was adopted virtually the only fuels used by motorized vehicles were (gasoline and diesel) fuels. As time passed, alternative fuels have been developed. Users of these fuels who use our roads and bridges should also pay a road toll."

The House will vote on House Bill 1142, which proposed the tax on alternative fuels, on Wednesday, but the final vote will not come until a month from now after the House Ways and Means Committee reviews the bill.

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