NEW HAMPSHIRE stands on the verge of repealing its death penalty, and needs just a few more senators to come out against the increasingly indefensible practice before a vote planned for Thursday. Momentum in Concord has been growing since the state House of Representatives passed a repeal measure in March in a bipartisan vote, and Governor Maggie Hassan has said she will sign the legislation should it make it out of the Senate. But enough senators — including Democrat Jeff Woodburn and Republicans Bob Odell, Russell Prescott, Andy Sanborn, and Jeanie Forrester — remain undecided to leave the measure’s fate in doubt.
By now, the undecided legislators have heard all the arguments against capital punishment. Death-penalty prosecutions are expensive, verdicts often reflect racial bias, and there’s little evidence that executions actually deter violent crime. Social attitudes have shifted, with more viewing the punishment as inhumane. And the possibility of executing a wrongfully convicted defendant looms over the whole debate; a state with a libertarian heritage like New Hampshire’s should regard with deep suspicion a punishment that can only make sense if the government has the right suspect 100 percent of the time.
Despite the objections, some New Hampshire lawmakers appear sympathetic to the argument that prosecutors need the death penalty in their toolbox so they’ll have more leverage to negotiate tougher plea bargains. Facing the possibility of death if they’re convicted at trial, the theory goes, criminals will be more likely to accept life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Yet that’s among the weakest of reasons to keep the death penalty, because it could serve to coerce an innocent or less culpable defendant into taking a plea bargain just to avoid the possibility of death.
Because New Hampshire has not put a convict to death since 1939, past debates on capital punishment in Concord have taken on an overly philosophical feel. The tenor of the debate this time is slightly different: New Hampshire now has a death row prisoner, Michael Addison, who was convicted of murdering a Manchester police officer in 2006. The current repeal proposal wouldn’t void Addison’s sentence and will only apply to future convictions. Still, his case should serve as a reminder that lawmakers can’t approach the death penalty like it’s a legalistic bargaining strategy divorced from the reality of executions. The death penalty hasn’t been shown to be an effective deterrent to crime and distorts the normal processes of justice. New Hampshire should get rid of it.