CONCORD No character style: — Three longtime proponents of the death penalty changed their minds and voted to repeal it on Tuesday.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee voted, 14-3, to pass House Bill 1170, which would repeal the state’s capital murder statute.
The committee has never backed repealing the death penalty. The House is expected to approve the bill, which still has an uphill battle in the Senate.
The bill’s prime sponsor, committee vice chairman Rep. Robert Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said after the committee vote, “I’m totally amazed.” Cushing, whose father was gunned down by an off-duty Hampton police officer in 1988, has long been an advocate for repealing the death penalty.
“It’s been a long process,” he said, “and we still have a long ways to go.”
Committee chairman and longtime death penalty proponent Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, said she always believed the death penalty was an insurance blanket over police officers, but recently two people were convicted of capital murder — a white man who was sentenced to life in prison and a black man who sits on death row.
Pantelakos said she has a grandson who will soon graduate from the police academy and another who will graduate with an engineering degree.
“Why is a police officer’s life more valuable than an engineer’s?” she asked.
Cushing said the bill is backed by two former attorney generals who were proponents of the death penalty when they held those posts. Phil McLaughlin came before the committee in 1998 asking to expand the capital murder statute, he noted.
“I view them now as the voice of experience,” Cushing said, “and how our thinking has changed in New Hampshire and the rest of the country.”
If New Hampshire repeals the death penalty, he said, it will be the seventh state in seven years to do so.
The most serious recent attempt to repeal the death penalty came in 2009 when the House approved repeal but the Senate let the bill die after former Gov. John Lynch said he would veto it.
The House and Senate approved repealing the death penalty in 2000 when Jeanne Shaheen was governor, but she vetoed the bill and lawmakers failed to override.
Other attempts to repeal the state’s capital murder statute have failed in either the House or the Senate.
However, death penalty opponents believe they have an opportunity this year because Gov. Maggie Hassan supports repealing the death penalty as long as it is not retroactive.
Repealing the death penalty will not affect Michael Addison, who sits on death row for the murder of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006.
At the public hearing on HB 1170, much of the opposition to repeal came from the law enforcement community, often citing Briggs’ murder.
Manchester Assistant Chief of Police Nick Willard spoke on behalf of the department and the Briggs family, saying the slain officer supported the death penalty.
During committee discussion, House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, noted he spent 30 years in law enforcement and in the past always voted against repealing the death penalty.
“I would like to think with age comes wisdom,” Shurtleff said. “So today I will be voting for repeal.”
Another longtime death penalty supporter, Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton, said he was moved by the testimony of families who did not want another life taken to avenge their loss.
He said murderers ought to sit in jail for a long time thinking about what they have done.
“I do not want to take another life; I’m not God,” Fields said. “He is the only one who can judge people in the end.”
The full House will vote on HB 1170 within the next month.