Repealing the death penalty has come up multiple times in David Welch’s 17 terms as a Republican lawmaker in New Hampshire — the only state in New England with capital punishment on its books. And he always sided against the legislation — until his wife died unexpectedly in the hospital on Christmas in 2016.
“The grief that I’ve been going through is really horrible,” the Kingston lawmaker said. The pain prompted Welch to think about not only how the family of murder victims suffer the same heartbreak, but also the grief of those with kin on death row.
“It’s one thing to go through it because you can’t help it, but when it’s purposeful — I don’t like the idea of my government doing that,” Welch said in a phone interview.
Welch’s change of heart is among the factors that have brought New Hampshire to the cusp of abolishing the death penalty — closer than advocates for repeal have gotten in a generation. The state has not executed anyone since 1939, although the convicted killer of Michael Briggs, a Manchester police officer who was shot to death in 2006, is on death row.
Earlier this year, both chambers of the state Legislature approved identical bills that change “the penalty for capital murder to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” But unlike in the past, the state House and Senate did so this time by margins wide enough to override a planned veto by Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican.
Should New Hampshire legislators successfully overcome that veto, their state would become the 21st to abolish the death penalty, in the latest sign of waning national support for capital punishment.
“None of this takes place in a vacuum,” said Renny Cushing, a Democratic state representative who has pushed to repeal capital punishment for two decades. “It’s part of a national and international trend away from the death penalty.”
It’s a trend that cuts across traditional ideological lines. In New Hampshire, the repeal bill is now supported by about 40 percent of Republicans in the House, and about half of the GOP members in the Senate, said Barbara Keshen, chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a former homicide prosecutor and public defender.
“That’s been a real sea change for us,” said Keshen, who said New Hampshire Republicans have been influenced by conservatives at the national level turning against capital punishment.
Bills to repeal or curtail capital punishment have drawn significant GOP support, including in conservative strongholds like Wyoming, Kentucky, and Montana, where Republican backers have mounted arguments against the fiscal burden it places on states, as well as criticizing it on moral and effectiveness grounds.
Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, became a prominent advocate for abolishing capital punishment after his father was killed during a home invasion in 1988, shot at the door of the house where Cushing now lives.
The murder reinforced Cushing’s view that capital punishment is morally wrong. His father’s killing also led him to feel an obligation to speak out against it given his position as the family member of a murder victim, and the societal assumption that those in his circumstances would embrace the death penalty.
Cushing introduced his first repeal bill in March 1998, in response to efforts to expand New Hampshire’s capital punishment law after several high-profile murders.
For 20 years, he has worked across the country and watched state after state end capital punishment — New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), and Connecticut (2012) among them — while the New Hampshire law persisted.
In 2000, legislation scrapping the death penalty passed both the state House and Senate, only to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen, now a US senator. In 2014, legislation failed on a tie vote in the state Senate. Last year, Sununu vetoed a bill identical to the one headed to his desk now — and the override effort fell short in the state Senate.
Sununu has repeatedly promised another veto.
“Governor Sununu will continue to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in vetoing this bill,” said his spokesman in a statement.
Opponents of the repeal bill say New Hampshire’s specific law and the state’s decades without an execution show that capital punishment is used judiciously, negating arguments about wrongful conviction.
Under New Hampshire’s law, there are only seven instances in which the death penalty can be applied, including the murder of an on-duty police officer or judge, murder for hire, murder connected to a kidnapping, and murder during a rape.
“It’s an important penalty that shouldn’t be removed. It shouldn’t be imposed in every case, as it hasn’t been, but the ability for the jury to impose it is appropriate and should not be removed,” said Mark Chase, police chief in Center Harbor and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.
Case said he believes the bill’s enactment would lead the state to commute the death sentence of Michael Addison, who killed Briggs, the Manchester police officer. The bill does not apply retroactively, but opponents say case law indicates the state would ultimately have to give Addison life in prison.
“He would be given no penalty for killing a police officer, and yes I object to that, and New Hampshire law enforcement objects to that,” Chase said.
“The death penalty is about protecting society from evil. It’s not about an eye-for-an-eye or revenge. It’s about protecting our society from evil people that do evil things,” said Laura Briggs, wife of the murdered officer, during a rare public statement, testifying against repeal at a hearing in March.
Supporters aren’t celebrating yet. Keshen’s group is urging members to write lawmakers and thank them for supporting the repeal, with an eye toward keeping legislators firm when the bill comes back for a veto override vote. Coalition members are also planning a prayer vigil to urge Sununu not to veto the bill.
“I’m just holding my breath to see it really happen,” Keshen said. “We’ve been very close before.”
Activists say they expect the bill will reach Sununu’s desk on Wednesday, after which the governor has five days, excluding Sunday, to take action.
Welch, the recent convert to the cause, has told Cushing he will speak in favor of the override when it comes up in the House, even though he finds it hard to talk about his grief over his wife’s death.
He said he hopes the override votes are there, “because I don’t want to go through this again.”