New Hampshire has not executed anyone for three quarters of a century. Yet it registered the second lowest murder rate in the nation every year of this century. Our state is regularly ranked one of the safest in which to live, and by reported crime statistics was the safest in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The time has come to embrace New Hampshire history, and abolish the death penalty.
There is no relationship between the death penalty and protection from murderers. Louisiana, a state with 28 executions since 1975, has had the highest murder rate in the nation every year since 1996. Mississippi, with 21 executions, was either second or third during that period. The other states with the lowest murder rates, Hawaii, Vermont, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Iowa, have no death penalty.
We do not doubt that those who support capital punishment do so from a sense of outrage at the horror of murder, and in the belief that executions serve a necessary purpose. We share that outrage, but for us the question must be asked: What purpose is served by executions?
Can the purpose be deterrence, when analysis and experience show that those who kill do not consider the sentence before they act, or do not expect to be caught, or both?
Can the purpose of executions be protection from the killers, when life imprisonment without the possibility of parole provides that protection, and in light of published reports that no state has ever paroled a person from such a sentence?
Can the purpose be to provide consistency in prosecutions, when the decision whether to seek the death penalty can be so random and so easily influenced by public opinion, political pressure, and media attention?
Can the purpose be to achieve fairness when experience shows that the decision whether to impose death is completely dependent upon the composition of a particular jury and the emotions of individual jurors in each case, and when death is imposed more upon minorities and the poor than on the established and well-to-do?
Can the purpose be to save tax dollars, when it has been well established that to seek and carry out the death penalty costs more than to prosecute and imprison a person for life? And even if an execution might cost less, wouldn't killing merely to save money be unthinkable?
If, as some argue, the purpose is to honor law enforcement, doesn't honor come from personal pride and earned respect, rather than from state sanctioned killings?
If the purpose is to provide justice for victims, isn't justice served by sensitivity to their plight, by swift apprehension and vigorous prosecution of murderers, by adherence to the Constitution, and by fair and impartial trials?
Ultimately, isn't the death penalty more about retribution than anything else? And even if retribution satisfies personal passion for some citizens, should it justify government executions in the name of all citizens?
Most of us will never feel the loss experienced by victims of murder. We may never know whether the desire for revenge could lead us to support death for a person who murdered someone we love. Nevertheless, neither of these failings makes abolition of the death penalty any less compelling. We believe there is simply no valid reason for a civilized society to condone the systematic killing of human beings.
Arguments that there are laws to reduce the risk of wrongful execution, or laws to kill in a "humane" way are not persuasive. In fact, knowing that innocent people have been executed, and that DNA evidence has freed others before execution, is enough for us to abhor the death penalty, irrespective of any arguments to support it. With the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence that cannot be reversed after it is imposed?
Clearly, murderers must be punished and removed from society. Life in prison without parole does both. It is unnerving merely to contemplate the isolation of life in an 8 by 10 foot cell, the constant mind numbing sound of steel on steel, the monotony of a regimented daily routine, the demoralizing absence of ordinary freedoms, the gradual dwindling of visitors until there are none, and the eventual loss of hope until a life without the simple joys we all take for granted ends with a lonely death in prison. That is punishment.
Eliminating state executions says nothing about criminals who kill, but it says a great deal about a society that does not. For us, the principle for any killing is the same: The intentional taking of human life, except in self-defense or in the defense of others, is not acceptable no matter who does the killing. Abolishing the death penalty will not compromise public safety, but it may replace rage with reason, retribution with self-respect, and enrich the character of our people as a whole.
John Broderick is UNH Law School Dean and former N.H. Supreme Court Chief Justice. Joseph Nadeau is an international consultant and former N.H. Supreme Court Justice.