CONCORD — A bill to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire cleared the state Senate with a veto-proof, 17-6, two-thirds margin Thursday, setting the stage for the end of capital punishment in a state that hasn’t executed anyone since 1939.
The House passed the repeal measure, HB 455, on March 3, also by a veto-proof vote of 279-88.
Twelve Senate Democrats voted for the repeal bill along with Republicans John Reagan of Deerfield, Harold French of Franklin, Bob Giuda of Warren, David Starr of Franconia and Ruth Ward of Stoddard.
Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh of Manchester was the only Democrat to vote against repeal. Democratic Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, also of Manchester, has voted against repeal in the past but was not present for Thursday’s vote.
Gov. Chris Sununu has promised to veto the bill, but votes in the House and Senate signal he most likely will be powerless to stop the repeal from taking effect unless two senators change their minds for the override vote.
Now that the bill has cleared both chambers it need only be signed by the House Speaker, Senate President and Secretary of State before landing on Sununu’s desk, at which point he has five business days to veto, sign, or let the bill become law without a signature.
A vote to override Sununu’s anticipated veto could take place later this month or next.
The bill revokes the existing capital punishment statute and replaces it with a penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole for murder of a police officer or other capital offenses.
On death row
New Hampshire currently has one person on death row — Michael Addison —who was sentenced to death for the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs.
Opponents of death penalty repeal argued that Addison will never be executed if capital punishment is repealed, while supporters of the repeal said the law would not be applied retroactively.
Addison’s fate has become a central issue in the death penalty debate, with Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Hudson, arguing the question would not have come up otherwise.
“We have set such a high bar for the implementation of the death penalty that it has not been used in nearly 100 years,” she said.
“So why is it so imperative now that we get rid of it? I will argue it’s because we have one individual on death row ... one individual who met the requirements that have been put into place by former legislators. He committed a heinous crime against a police officer.”
Supporters of the repeal made little mention of Briggs, whose wife Laura testified against repeal before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Instead they focused on the broader reasons for their opposition to the death penalty.
“State-sanctioned killing is cruel, ineffective and inherently flawed,” said Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover. “In committee we heard tragic, heart-wrenching testimony from those whose loved ones were murdered. Many testified that state killings do nothing to honor the lives of their loved ones.”
The state currently has no means to carry out an execution.
“The day this becomes law, Mr. Addison’s sentence will be converted to life in prison,” said Carson, visibly shaken by the anticipated outcome of the vote.
“He will go to the U.S. District Court and argue equal protection and his sentence will be converted to life in prison. Please talk to Mrs. Briggs about that. She will not be able to speak to her husband again, whereas Mr. Addison will be able to talk to his family, have them come up to visit him.”
A long history
If the repeal bill becomes law, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to ban capital punishment.
State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, whose father was murdered in 1988, has been fighting to end the death penalty for decades. His brother-in-law was also murdered in Tennessee in 2011.
“It looks like we may finally be ready to move beyond the death penalty,” he said after Thursday’s vote. “It was 21 years ago last month that Sen. Cliff Below and I brought forth the first death penalty repeal bill in a generation. We lost in the House 195-155.”
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 successfully vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.