CONCORD, November 12, 2013 – New Hampshire church leaders have issued a call to abolish the death penalty and for clergy to discuss the issue with their congregations.
Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Right Rev. A. Robert Hirschfield of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, Bishop Peter Anthony Libasci of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, and the Rev. Gary Schulte, conference minister of the N.H. Conference of the United Church of Christ, are encouraging their clergy to discuss their objections to the death penalty during the weekend of Nov. 23-24.
Bishop Hirschfield called on clergy statewide to participate in a “Preach-In” on the death penalty Nov. 24, coinciding with the Feast of Christ the King Sunday, when the lectionary readings focus on Jesus’s own execution.
“When I was informed that our elected representatives would be considering a bill calling for repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire, it seemed fitting to call on church leaders to urge our people to reflect on this legislation through the lens of Scripture and the tradition of Christian teaching,” said Bishop Hirschfield. “Christ the King Sunday, which falls this year on Nov. 24, reminds Christians of the sovereignty of God in all aspects of our lives and society. The execution and resurrection of Jesus remind us of the futility of acts of violence, hatred, retribution and fear as means to establish a just and peaceful society.
Our churches, for too long divided, have a special opportunity this year to reflect and pray together about how Christian teaching leads us to a society that’s closer to the reign of God. It is for this reason that the leaders of so many denominations are joining in this effort,” he said.
Bishop Libasci said the Feast of Christ the King is an opportunity for Catholics and other Christians to support victims of crime and their families, while remembering that those who commit crimes are capable of redemption – of coming to know Jesus as we see in the story of Christ’s own execution.
“The death penalty neither deters others, nor brings this perpetrator to understanding, but instead, in the worst of ironies, publicly validates the very act of taking a human life,” he said.
Bishop Hazelwood said the death penalty has proven to be an ineffective tool for crime deterrence. “In all likelihood it has been applied to persons who later could have been proven innocent and it does not stand the test of the teachings of Jesus. There is no logical, practical or spiritual reason to continue the death penalty in New Hampshire,” he said.
The Rev. Gary Schulte said in the Christian tradition we are taught by Jesus that “an eye for an eye” and a “tooth for tooth” – or life for a life – is not the ethical standard by which we should live our lives.
“I also believe this applies to our collective responsibility as citizens of the state of New Hampshire. While we have a responsibility to protect our citizens, vengeance and state-sponsored violence are not the way we make our society safer for all,” he said.
This effort is a religious and educational response to bipartisan legislation recently filed in the New Hampshire House to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty. The New Hampshire Council of Churches is an organizational member of the N.H. Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which is spearheading the repeal campaign.
Last week, the Supreme Court’s upheld the state’s death penalty in the case of Michael Addison, convicted of capital murder in the 2006 shooting death of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. Addison, 33, a former Boston gang member, is the only person on death row in New Hampshire.
His appeal, on the legal issue of proportionality, is still pending before the Supreme Court.
An enthusiastic crowd of activists, legislators and students attended The Road to Repeal: Ending the Death Penalty in New Hampshire in 2014 event on October 10 at the University of NH. The event marked the observance of World Death Penalty Abolition Day as well as the submission of a new death penalty repeal bill to the NH legislature and the launch of the repeal campaign in NH.
The campaign is already garnering broad bipartisan support in the NH Legislature with a balanced mix of Democrats and Republicans co-sponsoring. Representative Robert “Renny” Cushing of Hampton, a long-time death penalty repeal advocate and founder and executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, spoke about his history as a murder victim family member and his observations about why some resist repealing the death penalty and how they might be encouraged to come around. Cushing was joined by two Republicans who are co-sponsoring the bill in NH, Senator Sam Cataldo and Representative John Cebrowski, who spoke strongly and eloquently about why they support repeal. They also offered helpful advice for NH citizens reaching out to their legislators, emphasizing that they should write original, personalized and short emails or letters and avoid canned talking points.
NHCADP Board Chair Barbara Keshen presented The Governor Badger Award to former NH Superior Court Judge Walter L. Murphy for his contribution to efforts to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire. Keshen lauded Murphy’s pragmatic decisions on the bench, and a courageous ruling finding the death penalty unconstitutional in a capital case. Murphy chaired the NH Death Penalty Study Commission in 2009-10. Though the Commission’s vote came out narrowly against repealing the death penalty in NH, Murphy said he thought those voting against were wrong and that they had willfully ignored the evidence and testimony of over 70 witnesses heard during the study.
The event featured keynote speaker Kirk Bloodsworth, Director of Advocacy of Witness to Innocence. Kirk was sent to death row in March of 1985 for the murder and sexual assault of a nine year old girl. But he was innocent. DNA testing exonerated him — he was the first person to be freed based on DNA evidence — and Kirk was released from prison and pardoned in 1993. Kirk’s story of wrongful conviction, botched police work and evidence handling, and 9 years in prison had a profound impact on everyone in the room. A movie about Kirk’s journey, Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man, is due to be released in January. Watch Kirk’s UNH presentation here.
Mona Cadena of Equal Justice USA also spoke at the event. She shared her recent experience of supporting the successful repeal efforts in Maryland (signed into law this year), and her longer-term efforts in other states around the country. Mona and EJUSA have been a helpful resource to NHCADP as we have gotten our program off the ground over the past several months.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Hannah Waller and the members of the Amnesty International UNH Student Group, and to Cynthia Gabriel Walsh of Amnesty International USA, for their leadership in making this event a success.