Sununu vetoes death penalty repeal

Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a repeal of the state’s death penalty on May 3, 2019. Sununu claims law enforcement believes the rarely used penalty has a deterrent effect.

CONCORD — Reaction was swift and strong on both sides to Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty.

“The time to end the death penalty in New Hampshire is now. The overwhelming evidence is that state-sanctioned murder is not a deterrent to criminals; putting criminals to death is significantly more expensive than life in prison, and too many innocent people have been executed, or (are) exonerated just before executions,” said state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover.

“Life in prison without parole is the appropriate and humane form of punishment for perpetrators of the most heinous of crimes.”

Sununu’s veto came at the Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester on Friday where he was surrounded by local and state police officers.

Within a few hours of Sununu’s own post on Facebook, he attracted more than 500 comments, many praising the two-term Republican for maintaining support for capital punishment.

Michael “Stix” Addison, the convicted killer of Manchester patrolman Briggs nearly 13 years ago, is the only one on New Hampshire’s death row.

“I was 12 when officer Briggs was shot. I’m supporting his memory and police officers all over this state. I’m supporting my governor on his veto,” said Rep. Joe Alexander, R-Goffstown.

Former U.S. Sen. and past N.H. Attorney General Kelly Ayotte said while state laws can’t be applied retroactively, there would be no legal way to carry out Addison’s execution if repeal of the death penalty became a reality.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and state Senate have passed this bill (HB 455) by veto-proof majorities.

Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, wrote his first death penalty bill 21 years ago and said he believes the Legislature will take up the override question by the end of this month.

Cushing doesn’t take for granted that he could be just weeks away from the dream he’s had since becoming a capital punishment repeal advocate after his father was murdered at his home in 1988.

“We’ve seen before the pressure that can be brought to bear. What I do feel good about is that in both parties this remains a deeply held vote of conscience and as long as that is the case it’s possible we can bring this home,” Cushing said during a telephone interview.

Former governor and now Sen. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a death penalty repeal bill in 2000. At that time, however, the Legislature was much more closely split and Shaheen, a Democrat, knew lawmakers would sustain her veto.

The same was true last year when Sununu vetoed an identical bill. Sununu knew that with GOP control of the Legislature at the time, there was no chance that veto was going to be overridden.

“We’ve really built such an eclectic group. Along with progressives you’ve got libertarian Republicans who don’t want government to have this kind of power, some conservatives who see it as just another failed government program and pro-life Republicans who oppose murder from cradle to grave for any reason,” Cushing said.

Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, stressed each senator will make up their own mind.

“While I continue to believe it is time for New Hampshire to repeal capital punishment, I have the utmost respect for my State House colleagues, the votes they have taken, and those they will cast in the future on this important matter of public policy and personal conscience,” Soucy said.

Rev. Jason Wells, executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, was grateful at the strong support for repeal in the religious community.

“The Council’s many member denominations are diverse in their practice of the Christian faith but are unanimous in regarding capital punishment ‘problematic and unacceptable,’ ” Wells said. “This belief is rooted in our understanding of the sacredness of God’s gift of life. It is also rooted in the Christian commitment that God can bring redemption to any person, an opportunity which the death penalty closes off.”

Sununu’s supporters insist it remains a deterrent even in a state that’s not put someone to death since 1939.

“Excellent move, governor. Now we should not be reluctant to use it when absolutely necessary so that it will actually be a deterrent to further senseless premeditated murders,” said former state Rep. Fred Rice of Hampton.