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New Hampshire becomes 21st state to abolish the death penalty

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/30/2019 Zoe Greenberg
a group of people posing for the camera: Barbara Keshen, chairwoman of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, reacted after the New Hampshire Senate voted to repeal capital punishment in the state at the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H. © David L. Ryan/Globe Staff Barbara Keshen, chairwoman of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, reacted after the New Hampshire Senate voted to repeal capital punishment in the state at the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H.

CONCORD, N.H. — The New Hampshire Senate Thursday morning overrode a governor’s veto and repealed the state’s death penalty.

The 16-8 vote marked a dramatic end to a yearslong campaign, making New Hampshire the 21st state in the country to abolish the death penalty.

State Senator Melanie Levesque, a Democrat, spoke forcefully in favor of repealing the death penalty, calling the practice “archaic, costly, discriminatory, and final.”

“This vote is about our state and what kind of state we are all going to be a part of,” said state Senator Harold French, a Republican who voted to repeal the death penalty.

New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939, but the battle over its death penalty law has raged for decades, with opponents coming within a hair of abolishing it multiple times. In 2000 and 2018, the legislature passed a bill to prohibit executions, but both times the governor — first a Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, and then a Republican, Chris Sununu — vetoed it.

At the heart of much of the debate surrounding the repeal this time was Michael Addison, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer, Michael Briggs, in 2006. Addison is the state’s sole occupant of death row.

Earlier this month , Sununu vetoed a repeal bill once again, saying the bill was an “injustice to not only Officer Briggs and his family, but to law enforcement and victims of violent crime around the state.”

But for the first time the House and the Senate had enough votes to override the veto.

Addison became a potent symbol to both sides. Opponents of the death penalty pointed to him as an example of the racial disparities in a system where 34 percent of people put to death nationally since 1976 have been black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center , while only 13 percent of the country’s population is black.

Although the repeal is not retroactive, legal experts say it is likely that the courts will block Addison’s execution.

Advocates of the death penalty, including many law enforcement leaders, see Addison as a brutal criminal who did not deserve mercy, and pointed to the absence of recent executions as a sign of the state’s judicious use of the penalty. Its death penalty statute made capital punishment an option only in certain cases, including the murder of an on-duty police officer and murder during rape.

“It’s not about an eye for an eye, or revenge,” said Laura Briggs, the widow of the police officer killed by Addison, testifying in favor of the death penalty in March. “It’s about protecting our society from evil people that do evil things.”

After the vote, Sununu pronounced himself “incredibly disappointed” with the override.

Renny Cushing, a lawmaker who became an unlikely advocate for abolishing the death penalty after his father was murdered in 1988, was among the leading voices pushing the bill. Cushing, a Democratic state representative, often spoke about how his father’s death made people assume he wanted the killer to be killed in turn. Instead, he devoted himself to abolishing the death penalty, bringing the issue to the legislature almost every year for the past two decades.

Cushing was watching the vote from the gallery Thursday morning with dozens of other advocates. When the final vote was cast, the gallery broke into applause.

“It’s like there’s a Seamus Heaney poem that talks about moments when hope and history rhyme,” said Cushing, his voice breaking. “This is one of those moments.”

Zoe Greenberg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg. Material from the Globe archives was used in this report.


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