CONCORD, N.H.— A decadeslong battle ended in triumph on Thursday for opponents of the death penalty as the New Hampshire Senate overrode a governor’s veto and repealed the state’s capital punishment law.
The 16-8 vote made New Hampshire the 21st state in the country to abolish the death penalty.
When the result was announced, cheers erupted in the tiny gallery overlooking the Senate chambers, which was packed with activists, lawmakers, and clergy.
Among them was Renny Cushing, a Democratic state representative who became an unlikely advocate for abolishing the death penalty after his father was murdered in 1988.
“There’s a Seamus Heaney poem that talks about moments when hope and history rhyme,” said Cushing afterwards, his voice breaking. “This is one of those moments.”
The final tally, in which opponents of the death penalty garnered exactly the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor’s veto, did not fall neatly along party lines. Two Democrats voted to uphold it, while four Republicans voted to abolish it. (Senator David Starr, a Republican, switched sides between the initial vote and the override, ultimately voting to uphold the death penalty.)
“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. A Democratic senator, Melanie Levesque, called the practice “archaic, costly, discriminatory, and final,” urging her fellow senators to seize the moment and abolish it.
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. Earlier this month , Sununu vetoed a repeal bill once again. But this time, the House and the Senate had enough votes to override the governor.
At the heart of much of the debate surrounding the repeal this year 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.
Sununu summoned the specter of Addison when he announced his veto this month, 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.”
Addison had become 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. New Hampshire is an overwhelmingly white state, but its only death row occupant is black.
From all the murders that have taken place in the state since 1939, “we pick one poor, black kid from Dorchester” to execute, said John-Michael Dumais, the campaign director for the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, standing outside the Senate chambers after the vote.
Advocates of the death penalty, including many law enforcement leaders, see Addison as a brutal criminal who does not deserve mercy.
“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.”
Proponents also pointed to the absence of recent executions as a sign of the state’s judicious use of capital punishment. 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.
“New Hampshire has a very careful and very deliberative process. This is not Louisiana of the 1920s, where old Sparky was put up on the flatbed of a truck and driven around from prison to prison and people were executed. We are not those people,” said Senator Sharon Carson, a Republican, in Senate testimony before voting to uphold the death penalty.
She added that if Addison’s sentence was converted to life in prison, no one could guarantee that he would remain there — political tides might turn once again. “Twenty years from now, people might believe that life in prison is cruel and unusual,” she said.
Although the repeal is not retroactive, legal experts say it is likely that the courts will now block Addison’s execution. His lawyer declined to comment.
After the vote, Sununu pronounced himself “incredibly disappointed” with the override. Law enforcement officials were grieving as well. Pat Sullivan, the executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said by phone that he didn’t trust himself to speak about it yet.
“I’m upset. It bothers me,” he said.
Even as they celebrated the victory in New Hampshire, activists mourned an upcoming execution scheduled for Thursday night in Alabama, the 1,499th execution nationwide since 1976. But they hoped the hard-won repeal could serve as a model for other states aiming to abolish the death penalty.
“This is a real step forward,” said Barbara Keshen, the chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It gives me hope for the country.”