New Hampshire Senate Votes to Abolish Death Penalty

By Jerry Miller | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - The New Hampshire Senate voted 14-10 Thursday to abolish the death penalty in the state. The vote followed, by several weeks, similar, narrow passage in the state House of Representatives. The bill, however, may be doomed, since the state's Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen, promises to strike it down.

In a tersely worded and brief statement, Shaheen said, "I respect the deeply held beliefs of opponents of the death penalty. But it is my strong belief that there are some murders so heinous that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, and accordingly, I will veto this legislation."

A two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate is required to overturn the governor's veto. In light of the close votes in both chambers, overriding the veto is virtually impossible.

The Granite State has not executed a convicted killer in more than 60 years. The state's death penalty law is also very restrictive, in terms of the crimes to which it can be applied. Capital crimes include the killing of a police officer in the line of duty; the killing of a rape victim; the killing of a kidnap victim and murder for hire. People convicted of other first-degree murders face life sentences.

Shaheen's threat to veto the legislatively approved measure won the praise of the president of the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Association. "The New Hampshire death penalty is very limited in its use. It involves the most heinous of crimes," said Berlin Police Chief Al Tardif. "For me to support the abolition would mean I didn't support the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day. They need to be protected. The threat of the death penalty is a way of telling people the consequences they will face will be severe. I applaud the governor for her veto."

The group's incoming president, William Wrenn, chief of police in Hampton, echoed Tardif. "Opponents of the death penalty did not explain how narrowly construed the law is in this state...the killing of a police officer in the line of duty and other similar horrible crimes...there should be an enhanced penalty for killing a police officer or a rape victim."

But opponents of capital punishment offered a different perspective. Brian Henninger, program coordinator for the Washington, DC-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, said the New Hampshire Senate's action was part of a broader national trend toward abolition.

In addition to the recently imposed moratorium by the Governor of Illinois, 10 other states are in the process of working toward abolition, although none has gone as far as Illinois and New Hampshire. These include Oklahoma, Missouri, Maryland, Washington, Oregon and Kentucky

Characterizing the recent New Hampshire votes and the Illinois moratorium as "pinnacle events," Henninger admitted he and others are surprised that the Granite State has moved so quickly. "The events we've seen unfold in Illinois has given a wake-up call to others. People around the country are asking 'what are we doing in executing people, do we want to go this fast? And is this what we want to be doing? It's a healthy debate, one which the country should be having."

Henninger was especially hopeful that death penalty opponents in Oregon will succeed in getting the question on the November ballot and that death penalty opponents in Kentucky will be able to move an abolition measure through the House Judiciary Committee, where it is currently "bogged down."

Henninger said the nation is undergoing a change in attitude toward the death penalty, thanks to concerns being raised by religious leaders, including Pope John Paul, and press reports concerning cases where people have languished on death rows around the country, only to be later exonerated as a result of DNA testing.

"Publicity about wrongful convictions has awoken everyone. People are also concerned about the possible execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded," Henninger noted.

Diann Rust-Tierney, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Washington, DC office, who oversees the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project said, "Part of what might be happening in the nation is that the death penalty is more of a reality," given the growing number of executions. "Once only a small segment of the public was up on the issue. There has now been enough executions, that the issue has come to the fore in terms of the public's awareness."

According to Rust-Tierney, Illinois' moratorium on executions, the three-year ban imposed in Alabama and the activities in a growing number of other states, represent "a maturing of our thinking...political posturing may be falling away."

"My biggest concern is the gap between what the reality of the death penalty and how it operates and what the public sees. Trust and support for the death penalty is based on the belief that we've gotten the right person," Rust-Tierney said. As a result of DNA testing, "there are just too many instances where we don't get the right person."

The ACLU and American Friends Service Committee officials noted the nearly 90 erroneous death penalty sentences uncovered since the death penalty was again made legal in 1976 and insisted it's largely a matter of money. "Money and the ability to afford a decent lawyer is critical," said Rust-Tierney, and more and more of the public questions the fairness of that situation.