Today the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 279 to 88 in favor of repealing the state’s death penalty. Lawmakers have voted on this issue many times in the past few years. It’s been vetoed by governors before, and it’s expected that Governor Sununu will veto it again this year.
But today’s vote demonstrates that, at least at this point, there’s enough support to override a gubernatorial veto. For more on this we turned to Barbara Keshen, the chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity:
So over the years, how have the political winds shifted, if at all, on the issue of death penalty repeal in New Hampshire?
Well, greatly, in order to get to where we were today with an overwhelming support by the House. If you look back about eight or so years ago, we brought a bill to repeal the death penalty and lost by one vote in the Senate, and realized at that time that we hadn't done a very good job of reaching over to the Republicans in the legislature, and that the death penalty was still seen as a partisan issue where it's really not one. And so we spent the next year or so thinking about how best to reach across what was a perceived aisle for us and have real conversations with Republicans about what their concerns about the death penalty were and how to move them towards repeal.
So is this most recent vote a sign that the labors you've put in to talk to Republicans have paid off?
Well, yes it is. And it's not just us. I think that the one group of people that most moved the Republicans that I have spoken to in this state have been the exonerees who have come up to New Hampshire who talked about their experience of having been charged with a crime that they did not do, found guilty, sentenced to death, spent years on death row, and then were exonerated. And those stories really, really moved the legislators, especially the Republican legislators that we spoke to.
Michael Addison is currently the only person on death row in New Hampshire. He was convicted in the murder of Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs. To what extent is Michael Addison's present, specifically, on death row a factor in the debate over the death penalty repeal in New Hampshire?
It's not. I think that you know those of us who care about the potential for the government taking the life of its own citizens, it wouldn't matter to us if there was someone on death row or not. It certainly became realer when there was actually someone on death row and a real person that could potentially be put to death by the state. And that lit a fire under those of us who believed that the death penalty should be repealed. So to that extent, it did make a difference. But the fact that there is someone on death row or is not someone on death row, I don't think it really affects the fact that the majority of people in this state don't want to see the government putting its citizens to death.
So what do you expect advocates to do now?
Well, we have a Senate hearing coming up and we'll be making our case to the Senate. We expect the Senate to support repeal, but we want to make sure that they are comfortable and that any questions they have might be answered, and then we have to prepare for the possibility that Governor Sununu will veto the repeal bill. And we have to work to maintain our support so that we can override it.
Are there any senators in particular that you're hoping to talk to or you hope advocates will talk to?
We've done our homework in the Senate. And we were really honored a couple of years ago that the Senate Republicans sponsored a death penalty repeal bill. That was the first time that has ever happened in this state. And those Senate Republicans who did the bulk of the oaring on that issue, [former] Senator Avard and [former] Senator Gary Daniels, they really made the case with their fellow Republicans. And I feel pretty confident that they've done a really good job explaining their position and explaining their reasons to want repeal.
If the governor does veto the death penalty repeal, how confident are you that the state legislature can override his veto?
After today's vote, I feel pretty confident. You know 279 to 88 is a mandate. And what I hope the governor hears from that is that the people who are representing the people in this state know how their constituents feel and that vote is a reflection that it's the people in the state of New Hampshire that want this law off our books. And I hope that the Governor will heed that message.