The New Hampshire Legislature has banned capital punishment, overturning the veto of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. The outcome was narrow but anticipated. And, for opponents of the death penalty, it was a long time coming.
Opponents of capital punishment cheered from the Senate gallery when the override vote was tallied. They hugged and they cried. And worked to put the demise of the death penalty into perspective. Hampton Democrat Rep. Renny Cushing had sponsored repeal bills unsuccessfully for years. Until now.
“There is a Seamus Heaney poem that talks about moments when hope and history rhyme, and for me this is one of those moments when hope and history rhyme," he said after the Senate vote.
The override cleared the Senate by precisely the two-thirds margin required. The debate was short, and at times sharp. Senator Sharon Carson, a Republican from Londonderry, offered a lengthy argument against repealing the death penalty.
“This is not Louisiana of the 1920s, where Old Sparky was put up on a flatbed truck and driven around from prison to prison and people were executed," she said. "We are not those people.”
But for other senators, like Bob Guida of Warren, also a Republican, granting the state the power to take life, period, goes too far.
“This is called an issue of conscience because it supersedes any consideration of politics and for that I respect my colleagues, for that anyone who would subordinate this issue to political motives is a reprehensible person,” Guida said.
But politics were at play on this vote.
The governor’s office was urging GOP senators to back his veto right up until the vote. Last week in the House, some two dozen Republicans who had voted for repeal flipped to support Sununu’s veto. But just one senator did on Thursday: David Starr of Franconia.
In a statement, Sununu said he was “incredibly disappointed” by the override. Senate President Donna Soucy, meanwhile, said her chamber “did the right thing.”
This vote also split Democrats.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester supports the death penalty but says getting rid of it appears to be the will of the people.
“I think it’s been going on and on and on and on, and for years and years and years, and finally, those who want the death penalty gone have won the case, but they haven’t cured the situation," he said.
D’Allesandro was talking about violence, and the threats faced by law enforcement. New Hampshire's lone death row inmate, Michael Addison, was sentenced to death for killing Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. That case has shaped the debate over capital punishment here for years, and this repeal could alter its outcome. As written, the repeal would leave Addison’s death sentence intact. But death penalty bans in other states – even prospective ones – have ended up sparing inmates on death row.
And for activists who gathered on the State House steps after the vote to celebrate, people like Arnie Alpert of American Friends Service Committee, this fight didn’t sound over.
"And where we are today is not the end, we are at a point on the arc of the moral universe, and it is bending towards justice and we can see that today," Alpert told the crowd.
But as a smiling Renny Cushing reminded the activists, now might be an opportune time for a rest.
“But come on," he said, "let’s break bread together, let’s have a meal.”