The New Hampshire legislature has tinkered with the death penalty for two centuries, each iteration more arbitrary than the last. Bills to expand and repeal the death penalty have been won and defeated by small margins and elected officials, from both parties, have consistently raised concerns about New Hampshire’s death penalty.
Since 1974, the modern era of the death penalty, New Hampshire has amended its statute eight times. During that same time period, not a single person has been executed, For a single capital punishment case starting in 2008, NH has spent more than five million dollars on prosecution, defense, and appeals.
From the time of NH’s first recorded execution in 1739 to NH’s last execution in 1939, 22 prisoners were hanged by the state. One of these, Ruth Blay, is now recognized as having been the victim of a wrongful execution in 1768 (under British rule), after being convicted of concealing the body of her stillborn illegitimate child and refusing to reveal the identity of the father. (Read more on her story here.)
Chronology of New Hampshire’s death penalty and repeal efforts
2018: A death penalty repeal bill was introduced in the Senate with 13 bipartisan cosponsors and and passed 14-10. The NH House later passed the bill by a vote of 223-116. In June, Governor Sununu vetoed the bill.
2017: A death penalty expansion bill was introduced in the House, and was defeated on a division vote of 305-46.
2016: A repeal bill was introduced in the Senate, resulting in a 12-12 tied vote and thus failing to move forward. However, two new Republican supporters sponsored the bill, signaling an increase in conservative support for repeal in NH and across the country. A death penalty expansion bill introduced in the NH House was soundly defeated.
2014: The NH House voted by over a 2:1 margin to repeal the death penalty, but the Senate deadlocked 12–12, tabling the effort.
2012: Both major party candidates for Governor expressed opposition to the death penalty. The winner, Maggie Hassan, said she would be willing to sign repeal legislation.
2011: Against the recommendation of the Death Penalty Study Commission, the legislature voted to expand the death penalty statute to include homicide committed in conjunction with burglary of an occupied structure.
2010: The Death Penalty Study Commission, established by the legislature in 2009, voted by a narrow majority to retain but not expand the death penalty, while the minority favored repeal. Members agreed the death penalty is much more expensive than alternatives.
2005: The legislature banned the execution of those convicted of crimes while they were under the age of 18 and was signed into law by Governor John Lynch.
2000: For the first time in the country, a repeal bill passed in both houses of a Republican-controlled legislature. Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. A veto override vote in the House received a 194 to 148 majority, but fell short of the two-thirds vote needed.
1994: The legislature expanded New Hampshire’s death penalty statute to add murder of a “judicial officer” to the list of death-eligible crimes.
1990: The legislature amended the death penalty statute to include homicide while engaged in felonious sexual assault and homicide while engaged in drug crimes as death-eligible crimes. The amended statute also expanded evidence requirements for “aggravating factors” before a jury could sentence a defendant to death.
1986: The NH legislature amended the death penalty law to make lethal injection the method of execution, leaving hanging as an option if lethal injection is not possible.
1977: The law was altered to make execution an option, not a mandate.
1976: In, Gregg v Georgia, the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the use of the death penalty in the United States. The Gregg decision also made it clear that SCOTUS favored statutes with automatic review and did not mandate a death sentence for any crime.
1974: Governor Meldrim Thomson called the legislature into special session to enact death penalty legislation. The end result was a compromise to enact a narrower death penalty law that allowed for the death penalty in five categories of murder.
1973: The NH legislature rejected a reinstatement bill, opting instead to direct a commission, headed by then-Attorney General Warren Rudman, to examine the state’s homicide statutes. The commission never carried out its assignment.
1972: The US Supreme Court’s Furman decision voided New Hampshire’s death penalty law. Only two people were on the state’s death row at the time.
1939: The last time a person was executed in NH.
1834: Democratic Governor William Badger was the first to ask the legislature to abolish capital punishment.
Use of New Hampshire’s Death Penalty
- 2008: The first death sentences since 1991 are imposed. John “Jay” Brooks was found guilty of capital murder in October, but was sentenced to serve life in prison rather than be executed. Later that year, Michael Addison was found guilty of capital murder sentenced to death, which set in motion a mandatory appeal process which continues to this day. To date, NH has spent over $5 million on prosecution, defense, and post-conviction motions for Addison alone.
- 1991: The NH Supreme Court threw out capital charges in State v. Johnson, a murder-for-hire case, ruling that the charges were based on retrospective application of state law.
- In the decades after the American Revolution a strong “anti-gallows” and prisoner reform movement arose in the state, and at one point New Hampshire had the most restrictive death penalty in the nation.
- From the time of the first recorded execution in 1739 to the last execution in 1939, 22 prisoners were hanged by the state, and one, Ruth Blay, is now recognized as having been the victim of a “wrongful execution.”
See also “SHALL SURELY BE PUT TO DEATH.” Capital Punishment in New Hampshire, 1623-1985 (PDF) by Quentin Blaine, originally published in Bar Journal Vol. 27, No. 3, Spring 1986.