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Lawmakers revisit death penalty repeal

State House Bureau

February 27. 2018 11:31AM

The case of Michael Addison, sentenced to death in the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, would not be affected by the new legislation aimed at outlawing New Hampshire's death penalty. (UNION LEADER FILE/BOB LAPREE)

CONCORD — Lawmakers will try once again to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire, and this time around they appear to have the votes in the 24-member Senate, where past efforts have failed.

The bill has 13 Senate sponsors.

Senate Bill 593, introduced with no fanfare on Feb. 15, would change the penalty for capital murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The question has come up in each of the past two legislative sessions. The Senate tied 12-12 on death penalty repeal in 2016 and 2014, when repeal passed the House by 225-104.

There’s still no record of the bill in the Senate calendar and no hearing scheduled. The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, which will resume hearings when the Senate returns from February recess.

New Hampshire reinstated the death penalty in 1977, in the wake of a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, with lethal injection as the primary method of execution.

The leading advocate for death penalty repeal in the House has been Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, whose father was gunned down by an off-duty Hampton police officer in 1988.

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 of the murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2008.

SB 593 would not affect Addison’s case, since it could not be applied retroactively, according to one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren.

The fear of mistaken executions and the cost of death penalty cases were again cited as the motivation for the bill.

“On average, it costs about $5 million to do a total death penalty appeals process and all the stuff that goes with it,” Giuda said. “That’s one significant reason.”

In the fiscal note attached to the repeal legislation, the state Department of Justice reports that $2.5 million has been spent so far on the Addison case, “which will continue for several more years resulting in additional cost.”

Three recent homicide cases (not capital murder) went through the trial and appellate process at costs ranging from $403,000 to $550,000. In the same time period, 13 homicide cases were resolved by plea agreements at costs ranging from $16,000 to $175,000.

But the primary concern, according to Giuda, is the potential for irreversible error.

“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself the question, is the system perfect? And we’re finding increasingly that it’s not,” he said. “Do we run the risk of taking one innocent life for the sake of carrying out a death penalty?”

Representatives of law enforcement have lobbied aggressively against death penalty repeal in the past.

The 2000 Legislature approved abolishing the death penalty, but Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed that bill. In 2010, the House approved abolishing capital punishment but the Senate killed the bill before former Gov. John Lynch could veto it.

Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, a Democratic candidate for governor, responded to the news on Twitter, writing “N.H. should abolish the death penalty,” and pointed out that in 2016, Gov. Chris Sununu was “the only major candidate for governor in either party to oppose repeal of the death penalty.”

Sununu was in Washington, D.C., for the annual conference of state governors and unavailable for comment.

If the bill passes the legislature and is signed into law, it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

A person could now face the death penalty in New Hampshire for a murder involving a law enforcement officer, prosecutor or judge; a kidnapping; a contract killing; an aggravated felonious sexual assault; a robbery; or a drug offense.

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