During the five years Phillip McLaughlin served as New Hampshire’s top prosecutor, he kept a photo of a 6-year-old rape and murder victim on his desk.
The photo of Elizabeth Knapp of Hopkinton reminded McLaughlin of the time DNA evidence exonerated a man he had charged with murder – a man whom McLaughlin wholeheartedly believed was responsible for taking the child’s life.
“It was there to remind me that I believed something absolutely – and I was wrong,” he said Thursday during a panel discussion on the death penalty.
Under McLaughlin’s lead, the department of justice had charged Richard Buchanan, the boyfriend of Knapp’s mother, with the crime. But DNA tests cleared Buchanan and led officials to James Dale, who is serving 60 to 120 years in prison after a jury convicted him of rape and second-degree murder charges.
If the murder case against Buchanan had gone to trial, he could have been sentenced to death.
A decade later, McLaughlin, now retired, says the case showed him the real potential for injustice and made him seriously question the wisdom of maintaining the state’s death penalty. He is now part of a group of former police officers, corrections officials, judges and marshals who are taking a public stand against the death penalty and calling on lawmakers to repeal it.
On Thursday morning, the group, known as Law Enforcement Against Death Sentencing in New Hampshire, and the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty convened at New Hampshire Technical Institute’s Concord campus to premiere a documentary film featuring law enforcement veterans speaking out against capital punishment.
The documentary arrived one week before lawmakers, once again, consider the future of the death penalty in the state. Next week, the Senate will reconsider Senate Bill 593, which would repeal the death penalty. The bill passed the Senate 14-10 in March and the House 223-116 in April, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu. The Senate will need a two-third majority vote to override the veto and send the bill to the House.
Of the 10 former prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officials and others interviewed in the documentary, many question the reasons for upholding the state’s death penalty when, historically, it has not deterred criminals across the country from committing heinous acts.
“I’m not asking for leniency, I’m just saying we don’t need to kill,” said John Breckinridge, a former Manchester police officer.
Breckinridge was with officer Michael Briggs in 2008 when he was fatally shot by Michael Addison, the only convict on death row in the state. Addison, who is black, is also the only defendant New Hampshire has sentenced to death in eight decades.
Fairness, deterrence and costs associated with the death penalty are among the topics the film explores through the lens of law enforcement. The 25-minute film aims to challenge public perceptions that all professionals in the criminal justice community are behind the death penalty.
Thanks for a fine documentary that presents in a concise yet complete manner why the abolition of the death penalty is necessary.
– Eileen Brady
When Sununu vetoed death penalty repeal in June, he did so from his office at the State House while flanked by several uniformed officers. The setting for the veto concerned law enforcement veterans who said at Thursday’s event that opposition to the death penalty is real throughout the ranks, but fear of speaking out is keeping them quiet.
“When I first got into law enforcement, I was in favor of the death penalty – absolutely,” said former Marlborough Police Chief Raymond Dodge.
Then, three police officers were murdered in 1997, and prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty. In one case, the attorney general agreed to a plea bargain after learning a detective had failed to turn over evidence that a co-defendant had confessed to a cellmate.
Dodge, who didn’t know the details at the time, said Thursday the resolution of the case initially angered and baffled him. But after some reflection, he said he realized he didn’t actually understand the nuances of the death penalty or, more simply, when it could be applied.
“I think either the people in law enforcement don’t want to come out because there’s this brotherhood or they’re simply ignorant,” Dodge said.
Attendees of Thursday’s event said they hoped the premiere of the documentary would kickstart a week-long social media and calling campaign aimed at reaching lawmakers who will cast the deciding votes next week.
The last time lawmakers sent a death penalty repeal bill to the corner office was in 2000, when then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the measure.
New Hampshire is the only remaining New England state to authorize capital punishment by law.
(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, email@example.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)