Kelly Ayotte testifies on death penalty

At a hearing last month, former U.S. Senator and New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte testified against House Bill 455, a bill to repeal the state’s capital punishment statute, citing her experience in prosecuting the murderer of a Manchester police officer.

CONCORD — Kelly Ayotte’s view of the death penalty is informed by the brutal and senseless murder of a Manchester police officer in the line of duty.

Phil McLaughlin’s perspective on capital punishment evolved after he nearly prosecuted an innocent man for a capital crime.

The two former attorneys general offered opposing views on capital punishment as both testified at the State House on the latest effort to repeal the death penalty in the Granite State.

Ayotte, who served as the state’s chief law enforcement officer from 2004 to 2009, urged lawmakers to keep the death penalty on the books, while McLaughlin, who served from 1997-2002, said his experience as a prosecutor convinced him to endorse the repeal measure, HB 455.

New Hampshire currently has one person on death row — Michael Addison, who in 2008 was found guilty of murdering Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs, and sentenced to death in a case prosecuted by Ayotte.

She warned that revocation of the state’s capital punishment statute will mean Addison escapes the death penalty, even though supporters of repeal say it will only be applied moving forward.

Ayotte described Addison as a career criminal with nothing left to lose when he shot Officer Briggs as the officer was responding to a domestic violence complaint.

“I ask you not to repeal the death penalty because that is an appropriate penalty for what happened to Officer Briggs,” she said. “Our law enforcement officers deserve this protection; they deserve this deterrent.”

She pointed out no one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. “It’s a narrow statute and we have been very judicious in administering it.”

Different experience

McLaughlin cited his own experience as driving his point of view, as he described the circumstances surrounding the investigation into the 1997 rape and murder of 6-year-old Elizabeth Knapp in Contoocook.

Authorities at first arrested and charged the mother’s boyfriend, Richard Buchanan, who was later exonerated by DNA evidence that sent another man to jail for life.

“One senior senator, a Republican conservative, insisted on the death penalty for Richard Buchanan,” said McLaughlin. “Except that the evidence suggested he did not commit the murder. For years, I kept a photo of Elizabeth Knapp on my desk to remind me that I was in the position of Attorney General who was absolutely certain about something, but was dead wrong.”

Many of those who testified at Tuesday’s public hearing were familiar faces in what has become an annual ritual at the State House.

State Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, recounted in gruesome detail the murder of Kim Cates and the viscous assault on her daughter in a 2009 Mont Vernon home invasion, and asked, “How is life in prison justice for a heinous crime such as this.”

Notter sponsored the last bill to expand the state’s capital punishment statute, a 2011 measure that added murders committed during a home invasion.

Some from law enforcement also testified in opposition to the repeal, but most of those speaking had come in support of the bill, including surviving family members of murder victims.

‘No benefit’

Anne Lyczak, whose husband was killed in a drive-by shooting in Portsmouth in 1994, said the death penalty would “serve absolutely no benefit to me or my family.”

“We are bound by the ethical principle: do not kill,” she said. “We must build a society where killing by anyone cannot be tolerated, and that includes the government.”

State Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, choked back tears as he told of how his wife’s death two years ago changed his view of capital punishment.

“The grief has been really hard to deal with,” he said. “I always supported the death penalty because of police officers, and I supported it 100 percent. But everyone who goes into prison has a family. Regardless of what crimes they committed, they still have a family, and it just goes against my grain to have the state put that family into grief mode.”

Lawmakers have filed death penalty repeal bills almost every other year for the past decade. A Death Penalty Study Commission in 2010 voted by a narrow majority to retain but not expand the death penalty.

In 2014, the House voted to repeal, but the Senate deadlocked 12-12. In 2016, the repeal bill originated in the Senate, and lost there in another 12-12 vote. In 2018, a death penalty repeal bill passed both House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

This year could be different, with 16 senators already on record as opposed to the death penalty. The prospects for a veto override in the House are less certain, but stronger than ever given the Democratic majority.

HB 455 would replace the sentence of death with life in prison without parole.

Tuesday’s hearing was the main event in a legislative full-court press by death penalty opponents. The committee hearing was followed by a 3 p.m. reception in Executive Council Chambers with former death row prisoners who were later exonerated. A legislative luncheon on Wednesday is scheduled just after the committee vote.