By Jeanne Hruska, Political Director, ACLU of New Hampshire
As of Thursday, May 30th, New Hampshire is a state without the death penalty. It took decades to be able to say that. In the end, it came down to a single vote in both the state House and Senate. Thursday’s Senate vote means that all of New England is free of the death penalty, making it the first full region of the country to reject capital punishment.
The victory is a credit to the 279 representatives and 17 senators who voted in support of the repeal bill earlier this year, and a particular credit to the 247 representatives and 16 senators who stuck with their principles and voted their conscience in overriding Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of the bill.
This victory follows the Washington State Supreme Court’s striking down the death penalty just last year, and it also comes amidst the robust campaigns in Wyoming and Colorado in support of repeal. It is clear that the national momentum is moving in the direction of repeal, with presidential candidates now being asked about repealing the federal death penalty.
With an eye on the other states working towards abolishing capital punishment, our state offers two important takeaways. First and most importantly, repealing the death penalty is not about a political party or one set of ideas. Here in New Hampshire, we have seen both a Democratic and a Republican governor veto death penalty repeal bills. Every single legislative vote on repeal has seen a mix of Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the issue. Repeal has consistently proven to be overwhelmingly an issue of one’s own morality, faith, and personal experience.
Any campaign to abolish the death penalty in any state in the U.S. should reflect this and in doing so, be necessarily and zealously non-partisan. Abolishing the death penalty is not about politics, and as the wave of repeal crosses the nation, it is only politics that can stymie it.
If New Hampshire’s victory this year was ever in doubt, it was when partisanship intervened just before the House voted to override the Governor’s veto. Republican legislators were pressured by party leadership to flip their votes as a show of support for the Governor. Even then, it was not repeal that became partisan, but rather the issue of supporting a governor of one’s own party.
In all the years during which New Hampshire grappled with this issue, regardless of which party controlled the legislature, repealing the death penalty had been a vote of conscience. The party caucuses generally respected this fact, knowing that their membership was divided on the issue. Conscience is the guide.
Rep. David Welch, a Republican who voted in support of repeal for the first time this legislative session, hit the mark when he said on the House floor, “No one can change your mind if you have convictions on the subject matter.” If we are to put capital punishment behind us as a country, no single decision on repeal can be partisan. We cannot risk a pendulum effect based on whom controls the gavel. Again, this was and must remain a vote of conscience for legislators.
The second takeaway from New Hampshire is that the debate over repeal is not about any one case or anecdote, but rather is about a state making the philosophical decision that government should not have the power to execute one of its own people. New Hampshire has one death row prisoner. The repeal legislation does not apply to him, and the repeal campaign is not about him.
When opponents of repeal try to make this issue about one particular case, however heinous the crime a person was convicted of committing, they miss the point.
It is worth saying again, and simply: A vote in support of repealing the death penalty is not about any one person.
In fact, when arguments are made that repealing the death penalty could mean someone currently sentenced to death could have their sentence commuted to life without parole, the person making that argument is indirectly strengthening the hand of those waging the broader philosophical battle. An execution is an act of vengeance, not justice. Nothing makes this point more than arguing against repeal in order to ensure that the government executes a particular person.
When a voter, a legislator, or a state decides that government should not have the power to execute one of its own, the details of any one case are irrelevant. Government should not have such power, period.
Senator Harold French, one of the four republicans in support of repeal, said on the Senate floor before the vote that repealing the death penalty is a question of what kind of state we want to be. On May 30, New Hampshire stated conclusively that it wants to be a state where the government does not have the power to execute its own people.
Many of the reasons that legislators reached this conclusion in New Hampshire came from the realities of the death penalty across the country. The parameters of any one state’s death penalty law and history may seem local, but the implications and truths of capital punishment are national. No one state can completely divorce their own experience from that in other states.
These include the reality that 165 people sentenced to death in this country have subsequently been exonerated. It includes the fact that capital convictions are too often based not on the crime, but on, or influenced by, the race of the defendant and the victim, poor defense (which often relates to a defendant’s income status), and prosecutorial misconduct.
New Hampshire did not repeal the death penalty because of any one of these reasons or even because any one of these is necessarily at play in our state. The state did so because the combination of them painted a broader picture that necessitated repeal. The government should not have the power to execute one of its own people. Given such power, the government risks abusing it, whether that be against the innocent, the downtrodden, or anyone else.
Today, 21 states do not have the death penalty. Four more states have a gubernatorial moratorium on the death penalty. Half of this country has turned the page on this archaic, unjust, and discriminatory practice. With each additional state that joins the ranks of repeal, one message is stated clearly and should guide legislators to act as those in New Hampshire did: this country can live without the death penalty.