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 — The New Hampshire Legislature took a big step toward repeal of the death penalty on Thursday, with a veto-proof vote of 279-88 in support of House Bill 455.

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.

New Hampshire currently has one person on death row — Michael Addison. Addison 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Opponents of death penalty repeal argued that Addison will never be executed if capital punishment is repealed, while supporters of the repeal said the law would not be applied retroactively.

No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he stands with law enforcement in opposition to the repeal and will veto any repeal bill that lands on his desk.

Today’s vote in the House would be sufficient to overcome a veto, which requires a two-thirds majority, even if all 400 representatives are present on the day of the anticipated override vote.

The Senate is expected to approve the override with a veto-proof majority as well, since 16 of the 24 senators are already on record by virtue of past votes or campaign statements in opposition to the death penalty.

That doesn’t mean an override is guaranteed, however, as lobbying by both sides will be intense in the run-up to the Senate vote, Sununu’s veto, and the summer veto override session.

The debate on Thursday was somber and respectful, as lawmakers explained how they came to their positions on the issue.

“In the past 50 years, one out of 10 people on death row have been exonerated because of poor representation, false science and prosecutorial misconduct,” said Rep. Beth Rodd, D-Merrimack.

“Forty years of studies on the death penalty have shown it has no deterrent effect on future murders. The death penalty appeals process causes years of additional harm to families of murder victims, while executions fail to offer healing or closure.”

Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, said some crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is the only option that offers justice.

“I haven’t forgotten officer Briggs, and I hope you won’t either,” she said.

“When a criminal is serving a lifetime in prison, if he kills someone in jail, there is nothing they can add to the sentence. When a murderer is in prison for killing a cop, they’re considered a jailhouse hero. I advocate for innocent lives, but if you believe in justice for victims of heinous crimes, please vote no.”

Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the ACLU-NH, predicted that the Legislature will override a Sununu veto and erase the death penalty from New Hampshire statutes.

“In these divisive times it’s just great to see an issue where both sides can come together and show such strong support,” she said. “Given the vote count today it seems like there is veto override support in the House, and we think there are 16 votes in the Senate.”

Last June, Sununu vetoed a similar bill, SB 593, which had passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan majorities. The override failed in the Senate and therefore did not come before the House.

All other New England states have abolished the death penalty, the most recent being Connecticut in 2012.