Will NH Repeal the Death Penalty?

Momentum is slowly building

Illustration by Peter Noonan

Renny Cushing thinks a lot about killing, though he is no killer. His father was murdered in 1988. His life’s mission now is eliminating the death penalty and using that overturn as a way to honor victims like his dad.

He has spoken in front of Congress, started an advocacy group on the subject, successfully sued the state, co-authored two books and served three terms as a state representative from Hampton.

If there is anyone who knows how a bill becomes law, it is Cushing. He is a long-time activist and a close friend to outgoing House Speaker Terie Norelli. But passing a bill in the New Hampshire Statehouse can be especially challenging. Each session there are around 2,000 bills filed, and while each one will get a vote, it is up to lawmakers to prove why any certain bill should be viewed as a priority.

To break through the clutter, a lawmaker generally needs to make some noise to build up public support. Enough sound and fury usually translates into people contacting their representatives and newspaper editorials on the subject. It also helps to cut deals with other lawmakers or pressure them into supporting the party’s position, i.e. the politics of division.

What is so interesting about the death penalty repeal effort in the state lately is that it runs counter to all of the above. Instead of public outcries there have been hundreds of quiet conversations, letting this legislator or that legislator come to his or her own conclusion. And slowly this approach has been working.

New Hampshire has had a death penalty law since 1734. Since then, only 24 people have been executed by the state, the last occurring in 1939. Today, the state has one person on death row, admitted Manchester cop-killer Michael Addison, but there is no execution chamber.

"Attitudes have been changing about the death penalty."

Across the country attitudes have been changing about the death penalty, with support dwindling. According to the Gallup poll, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in 1995. In 2013 that number was just 55 percent. Since the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s, more than 1,300 people have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Eighteen states do not have a death penalty and momentum has been building year by year to repeal the law in New Hampshire. In 2012, both the Republican and Democratic nominee for governor opposed the death penalty, which meant that the Granite State appeared more primed for a repeal than anywhere else in the country. When Cushing’s bill to repeal the death penalty came up for a vote, it was approved in the House 225 to 104. But the bill stalled in the Senate in a 12-12 tie, just one vote preventing the bill from being passed.

To be sure, one of the big considerations in the debate is what to do with Addison and some amendments dealt with this.

This election year there will be groups recruiting candidates and giving them donations if they support all kinds of causes, like expanded gambling or backing labor unions. But that is not expected to be the case for advocates for or against the death penalty, despite how close the vote was this year.

And that is just the way that Cushing and others want it.  

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