Thursday, October 31, 2013

Time to Kill the Death Penalty

Last week the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty had a press conference to announce the kick-off of their new campaign to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire. There was a large bi-partisan group of legislators and community leaders on hand to show their support for the measure. Repeal bills have been tried before. In 2000, both the Republican controlled House and Senate voted to repeal the death penalty, but Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. This year, it seems that the planets may be in the proper alignment. The repeal bill has the support of the faith community, some Democrats, some Republicans, and much of the libertarian crowd. It’s a strong group of supporters.

There are 32 states that still have the death penalty. Eighteen states have abolished it. Alaska abolished the death penalty in 1957, before they officially became a state in 1959. New Hampshire is the only remaining New England state that has not abolished capital punishment.

NH has a long and convoluted relationship with the death penalty. We’ve mostly been squeamish about it, about using it, which is a good thing.  In 1834, Governor William Badger was the first to ask for a repeal. In 1972, a US Supreme Court decision voided the NH death penalty. In 1974 the legislature passed a new statute. In 1976 the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of the death penalty. In 1977 the NH statute was changed to make execution an option not a mandate. In 1984, Governor Meldrim Thomson called a special legislative session to enact new legislation. In 1986, the law was changed to make lethal injection the primary method of execution, leaving hanging as an option.  Every two or four years some kind of tinkering with the statute takes place.

New Hampshire may be stubbornly clinging to the option, but we’ve never been vigorous practitioners. The first recorded execution was in 1739 and the last was in 1939. NH hanged 22 people in all, and one, Ruth Blay, is now regarded as having been executed wrongly. She was hanged in Portsmouth in 1768 for allegedly killing and concealing the body of her illegitimate infant. She hid the baby under the floorboards of a barn. At the time, concealment of the birth of an illegitimate child was a capital offense.

That’s the thing. Long before DNA, we were executing the wrong people some of the time. Since 1973 some 140 innocent people on death row have been exonerated. There have been many problems with capital cases over the years, including mistaken eyewitnesses, incompetent lawyers, unreliable informants, and coerced confessions. The very possibility of executing an innocent person should be enough to deter us. Unfortunately the moral high ground isn’t usually persuasive. Money usually is.

In 2009, the legislature established a Death Penalty Study Commission. A year later the majority voted to retain but not expand the death penalty. The committee agreed that the death penalty is more expensive than the alternatives. That has proven to be true. A death penalty sentence costs 3-5 times as much as life without parole. The state of NH has already spent about $5 million on the Addison case. That amount is expected to at least double by the time appeals are exhausted. At the press conference, retired Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy wondered what sort of reaction legislators would get if they explained to constituents that there was a NH program that cost $1-2 million per year and the only people who get anything out of it are lawyers. The last budget passed delivered a $10 million cut to the judicial branch. That’s as much money for the whole state as the prosecution of just one case is expected to cost. So much for Yankee thrift.

                                            Justice Walter Murphy

There is no proof that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. Few criminals consider the consequences before committing any crime, preferring to think that they’re too smart to get caught. Or in the heat of the moment the consequences don’t even occur to them.

The death penalty is presented to us as justice. An eye for an eye, a way of families getting closure. A case that drags on for years and years doesn’t allow for closure or healing. Some of the most eloquent speakers against capital punishment are family members of murder victims. Lead sponsor of the current repeal bill, Rep. Renny Cushing, is one of those eloquent speakers. (see below)  His father was murdered in 1988. A sentence of life without parole doesn’t disrespect the memory of murder victims. It protects the public while preventing any possibility of a mistake. It is a sentence that prevents the state from using violence in an attempt to prevent violent crime, which is as unsuccessful as killing for peace has proven to be.  Or, as Justice Murphy put it, “The Constitution of NH says nothing about retribution. It’s the Department of Corrections, not retribution.”

The bulk of executions in the United States take place in the south. Texas leads the way, having executed over 500 people since 1976. During that same time period there was precisely one execution in New England. It was in Connecticut. Yet despite this execution zeal, any one of the New England states have far less violent crime than any of the top execution states.

NH is consistently ranked as one of the safest states to live in. Given that we haven’t executed anyone since 1939, it’s safe to say that the death penalty isn’t what makes us safer. The group that has come together in opposition to capital punishment is impressively diverse. It’s time for NH to join the rest of our civilized New England brethren, and repeal the death penalty.

“Before my father’s murder I had evolved a set of values that included a respect for life and an opposition to the death penalty. For me to change my beliefs because my father was murdered would only give more power to his killers, for they would then take not only his life but also his main legacy to me: the values he instilled. The same is true for society. If we let murderers turn us to murder, we give them too much power. They succeed in bringing us to their way of thinking and acting, and we become what we say we abhor.”  ~  Renny Cushing


© sbruce 2013    Photos from October 24 press conference by sbruce

Also published as a bi-weekly oped column in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Social evolution should be ongoing and progressive. Abolishing the death penalty is a fine start. We also desperately need effective dialogue on improving the way we try individuals accused of crimes, their imprisonment as well as the real lack of rehabilitation. We have no social services structure in place to really improve the lives of those facing release from confinement. Our prisons are full to overflowing for a reason. There is no prevention. Without these stop gap measures in place, individuals will continue to wallow in the prison system with no hope for a crimeless future after release (for non lifers).