Concerns Voiced over HB 351, a Death Penalty Expansion Bill
Concord, NH – February 7, 2017
Today in the NH House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, witnesses testified on HB 351, a bill to expand the death penalty by making “a person who knowingly causes the death of a child guilty of capital murder.” (More information about the bill here.)
Among those speaking on the bill were: Greg Smith, former NH Attorney General; Sabrina Butler Porter, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the death of her 9-month-old son, and later exonerated; Robert Dunham of the national Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), and Barbara Keshen, former prosecutor with the state of NH and the chair of the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
According to Dunham, an attorney and a nationally recognized expert on the death penalty, parents and others are often convicted of murdering children when in fact no crime has occurred at all. “In these heartbreaking cases,” Dunham told the committee, “parents who tragically lost their children to sickness or accident are then wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death based on faulty evidence and/or prosecutorial misconduct.” Dunham also spoke about how HB 351 would represent one of the broadest expansions of capital punishment in the US during a time when capital prosecutions and executions are at a 40-year low. (DPIC does not take a position on the death penalty per se, but offers information and statistics on its use across the US.)
Barbara Keshen argued that many child death cases she encountered as a prosecutor were related to mentally incompetent or overwhelmed parents. “In one case that I handled the mother who killed her son was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to the Secure Psychiatric Unit,” said Keshen. “In a second case the father, who killed his two children, later killed himself in jail. Making the killing of a child a capital offense would have done nothing to prevent or deter those terrible tragedies.”
Death Row Exoneree Sabrina Butler Porter shared her story of having found her son unconscious and desperately trying CPR until he could be attended to by hospital staff. The prosecution claimed the resulting bruises were the cause of the death, and Butler described how the police forced a confession under extreme duress, leading to a death sentence. “My new attorney got a new trial and showed that my son died from a hereditary kidney condition. There was no murder at all.” In all, Butler spent 2 years and 9 months on death row.
Three people, including the bill sponsor, spoke in favor of the bill, while eight spoke against. The Criminal Justice Committee will discuss the bill in executive session sometime in the next few weeks.