Friday, April 24, 2009
Hang 'Em High
The NH House of Representatives voted in favor of HB 556; a bill calling for the repeal of the death penalty. On April 14, the NH Senate Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard public testimony on the bill. They heard 3 hours of testimony. It was one of the best run hearings I’ve ever attended. Committee Chair Deb Reynolds was kind and empathetic, and treated everyone with respect, regardless of their position on the issue. She managed to very kindly move the repetitious speakers right along. It was unlike senate hearings I’ve attended in years gone by, where senators felt free to actually yell at members of the public, whilst they gave testimony. The Democratic majority has made for far more civil behavior.
Senator Reynolds also deviated from custom by asking Representatives who were there to either support or speak against the bill to wait until members of the public had their say. This was an extremely polite and respectful gesture, and one I’d never experienced.
Most of the cops who testified were from Manchester. This really isn’t about the death penalty for them, this is about killing Michael Addison, who killed Officer Michael Briggs of the Manchester PD. Manchester Police Chief David Mara said that if Briggs isn’t executed, he’d live the life of a rock star in prison. Apparently Chief Mara has never been to a prison. It ain’t exactly Carnegie Hall.
It was hard not to cry along with Michael Brigg’s mother, as she testified about losing her son. It was hard not to cry along with State Rep. Robert Cushing Jr., as he spoke about his father’s murder. It was hard not to cry as Bess Claussen Landis, who testified about her mother being beaten, raped, and killed one day while Bess and her sisters were at school. The family members of murder victims offered powerful testimony.
Manchester Lieutenant Nick Willard was angry with the legislators who dared to put this bill forward, and clearly offended at anyone who dare disagree with his position, which was, “I find this to be a slap in the face.” Willard seems to think that the death penalty is how a state shows support and respect for law enforcement. HB 556 could be sent to a study committee, and Willard essentially said, have the study committee, let us kill Addison, and THEN repeal the death penalty. Willard’s testimony illustrates one reason why there should be no death penalty. Angry people make decisions based on vengeance – and make no mistake, vengeance is what the death penalty is all about. Primal, eye for an eye style vengeance.
Rich white people don’t die on death row. Most people who are executed in the United States are poor people of color. Some of the folks speaking against HB 556 attempted to prove that NH is different, and even though we’re going to execute a poor black man, it’s different in NH. No one really addressed the fact that NH has had 2 capital cases recently. Rich, white murderer John Brooks didn’t get the death penalty.
The most gripping testimony of the afternoon came from Curtis McCarty, who spent 21 years in prison for murder, 16 of them on death row. He was exonerated in 2007 by DNA evidence. The room was completely silent as Curtis spoke - and he spoke with great respect for law enforcement, and a remarkable lack of bitterness. He also pointed out how painful this was for the family of the victim. They spent 21 years hating him and wishing him dead, only to find out that they'd hated the wrong guy. So much for the healing and closure the death penalty is supposed to provide.
Given the oft-expressed GOP fears about keeping costs low in the state, I wonder at their support for the death penalty. I haven’t heard a single Republican legislator address the cost factor. Why is that? Would the support change if property taxes were increased to pay for it?
NH does not have a death chamber. The Dept. of Corrections apparently has a plan for building one, to the tune of $1.7 million, but it is not as yet in a budget. We will also have to hire an execution team. NH law does not require that the team be comprised of licensed doctors or nurses. This is good news, since assisting in an execution would seem to go against the credo of the medical profession. Still, there will have to be an execution team to administer the lethal injection. Arnie Alpert of the NH American Friends Service Committee wondered about this in his HB 556 testimony. “Will they be state employees, subject to collective bargaining?” Alpert asked.
The state has already spent $3 million on the Brooks and Addison cases. The Addison case will cost millions more. How many millions? There is no way to know. The appeals process is lengthy and costly. This is why the pro-death penalty advocates don’t talk about the cost. It’s going to be enormous – just to kill one guy. Meanwhile, our state has a waiting list for people with developmental disabilities to receive services. Meanwhile, we don’t want to pay for educating our kids – an education that might well help prevent them from growing up to be criminals. Our priorities are skewed. Next time you run into one of your pro-death penalty local legislators, ask where the money is going to come from to kill Michael Addison.
The first executions in NH took place in 1739. It was a double hanging. Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny were hanged for “feloniously concealing the death of an infant bastard child.” Hangings were public spectacles, until 1868, when a riot broke out in Woodsville, after the hanging of Samuel Mills. The executions that followed were conducted on the grounds of the state prison in Concord. The last execution in NH was in 1939, when Howard Long was hanged for molesting and killing a 10-year-old boy. The state dismantled the gallows in the 1980’s. Obviously, it would be cheaper to hang Michael Addison, and why not? If we’re going to keep company with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, why not hang the guy? For that matter, why not stone him to death? That would be even cheaper, and I’m sure we could amend the statute. The Manchester cops could gather up the stones. We could have a lottery to determine who would cast the first stone. And if it were up to me, it would be mandatory for any governor who vetoed the repeal of the death penalty to be present.
“Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent.” US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.
This was printed as an op-ed in the Conway Daily Sun on April 24, 2009
Posted by susanthe at 11:34 AM