CONCORD, N.H. — Two dozen state senators are scheduled to gather Thursday morning in the small granite Capitol here to decide whether New Hampshire will become the last New England state to repeal the death penalty.
After decades of legislative efforts, round after round of anguished testimony, and intense 11th-hour lobbying, the vote is considered too close to call among the 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats who make up the chamber.
The potentially historic decision, in a state that has long prided itself on Yankee conservatism, is believed to rest with a handful of senators who have not announced their decisions.
The House already has passed repeal by an overwhelming margin, and first-term Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has said she will sign a bill that abolishes capital punishment.
State Senator Jeb Bradley, the Republican majority leader from Wolfeboro, is opposed to repeal but said he will not push for party solidarity. “We’re not making this a partisan or leadership issue. It’s a conscience issue,” Bradley said.
As the vote has neared, appeals to conscience have intensified. State Senator Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Democrat who backs the death penalty, said she has been lobbied to change her mind by John Broderick, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and A. Robert Hirschfeld, the Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire.
When Hirschfeld called, Stiles knew the reason. “I told him, ‘You’re not going to like my answer, bishop, but I can’t get there,’ ” she recalled.
“I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” Stiles said of repealing the death penalty. “There are crimes that are heinous enough to warrant it. I don’t know that I would call it a deterrent, but it’s the price you pay if you set out to kill someone.”
If the Senate votes to repeal, the governor’s signature on the bill will make New Hampshire the 19th state to abolish the death penalty.
The last time both chambers of the New Hampshire Legislature voted to repeal capital punishment, in 2000, then-governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the measure.
Shaheen, a Democrat who is now a US senator, called the death penalty then an appropriate sentence in limited, heinous cases.
What has changed is that the state now has a governor who is willing to enact repeal, said state Representative Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat who sponsored the successful House bill.
The state also has become home to an influx of former residents from Massachusetts, which has long been regarded as a more liberal state and where capital punishment was abolished in 1984.
For all the rhetoric swirling around the issue, the death penalty in New Hampshire seems to have more symbolic than practical significance. No one has been executed in the state in 75 years, and only one person sits on death row at the state prison in Concord.
That inmate, Michael Addison of Dorchester, Mass., was convicted in the 2006 shooting death of a Manchester police officer.
His appeals already have cost the state several million dollars in legal fees, and there is no end in sight.
Even the slain officer’s police partner, John Breckinridge of Goffstown, has made a 180-degree turn from vehement support for Addison’s death to a belief that capital punishment is morally wrong.
“What was I trying to accomplish? What is anybody trying to do? It’s not going to bring anyone back,” said Breckinridge, now a security guard at St. Anselm College in Manchester. “It was revenge on my part; that’s all it was.”
The Senate bill, if approved, would not affect Addison.
Ardent support for the death penalty — despite being limited to a few categories of crimes here — comes from the state’s association of police chiefs, some of whom are expected in the Senate gallery to monitor the debate.
“We look at the death penalty as part of our strategic plan to keep New Hampshire safe,” said Kensington Police Chief Michael Sielicki, the association president. “It’s used very sparingly.”
The death penalty can be applied by a New Hampshire jury in the murder of a law enforcement official — police, judges, correction officers, and prosecutors, for example — acting in the line of duty.
Other offenses eligible for capital punishment include contract killings and murders connected with kidnappings. Execution would be by lethal injection, or by hanging if injection is not possible. After Connecticut repealed capital punishment in 2012, New Hampshire remained the only state in New England to retain the death penalty.
Sielicki said the issue has affected him in professional and personal ways. In 1997, he was police chief in Colebrook, a small town in far northern New Hampshire, when two state troopers, a judge, and the local newspaper editor were killed in a shooting rampage by a heavily armed loner.
And his niece, Sielicki said, was shot and killed in 1987 in an act of domestic violence. That gunman was sentenced to life in prison in New Hampshire.
The deterrent effects of capital punishment cannot be quantified, he acknowledged, but the sentence is a necessary tool — particularly to protect police officers.
When a police officer is attacked, he said, “you’re attacking our structure, our civility, and that’s not fair to our law-abiding citizens. If you have such disregard for our government and our laws, that’s the sacrifice you should pay.”
But some lawmakers whose families have been touched by murder have reached different conclusions.
Cushing’s father was gunned down at the door to his home in 1988. And state Representative Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat first elected to the House in 1978, reversed course and supports repeal despite the 2012 murder of her son-in-law, Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney, who was killed as he helped serve a search warrant in a drug raid.
“I don’t think a police officer’s death is any more important than another,” said the 78-year-old Pantelakos, who had consistently voted for the death penalty until recently.
Pantelakos also said she was troubled by questions of race in murder cases. Addison, the Dorchester man convicted of murder, is black and has been sentenced to death. But in the only other recent case of capital murder, a wealthy white man from Derry, John Brooks, was sentenced to life in 2008 in the contract killing of a handyman.
State Senator Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, cast the tie-breaking vote in the Judiciary Committee this month to recommend that the full Senate vote to repeal the death penalty.
Police and many residents in Manchester, the state’s largest city, retain painful memories of the death eight years ago of Officer Michael Briggs, who was on bicycle patrol with Breckinridge when they turned into an alley, where Addison shot Briggs at close range.
Despite lingering anger over that killing, Soucy said the possibility of legal errors in future cases is impossible to overlook.
“As careful as we try, our judicial system is not perfect. There is always the potential for someone who is innocent to be sentenced to death,” Soucy said.
State Representative Steve Shurtleff, the Democratic majority leader from Penacook, is a former Concord police officer and US marshal who changed his mind to support repeal, in part because of a conversation he had after Mass with his parish priest.
“The day of the death penalty has come and gone,” Shurtleff said. “I always thought because law enforcement was on the front lines, they would be more of a target. But someone who is so vicious to take someone else’s life wouldn’t think twice about it.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.