Father’s murder inspired legislator’s crusade

by Nick B. Reid, originally published in the Hampton Union.

HAMPTON — Shortly after Renny Cushing’s father was murdered in 1988, a family friend came up to him and said, “Geez, I really hope the killer gets the death penalty.”

“I didn’t know how to respond,” said Cushing, a Democratic state representative from Hampton. “I realized the person had presumed I would change my position on the death penalty because my father was murdered.”

He said there exists a “widespread societal assumption” that all family members of murder victims want the death penalty for the killer. But for him, even as his father opened his front door one day to be met with “two shotgun blasts that rang out and turned his chest into hamburger right in front of my mother,” Cushing maintained his opposition to capital punishment.

If he hadn’t, he said, it wouldn’t have just been his father who was taken from him, but his values as well. He didn’t immediately become an activist — he said he preferred not to talk about the incident — but his position imposed upon him an obligation to speak out, “lest my silence on the issue be seen as me agreeing with the presumption” that he would want the death penalty.

Long before he served his first term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, Cushing testified as an advocate for victims’ rights. He said most of his work after the murder went toward ensuring victims had rights to information and state assistance; at the time, he said, “everything was focused on the offender” with little help available for victims.

He said there was a “crime spree” in the 1990s that led then-Attorney General Philip McLaughlin to seek an expansion of the death penalty in 1998. It was at that time Cushing decided to introduce a bill alongside state Rep. Clifton Below to repeal the death penalty.

Cushing notes that there were more votes for repeal than expansion, and McLaughlin is now “urging” death penalty repeal.

“Times have changed,” he said.

Last year, for the first time, New Hampshire had two candidates for governor who supported death penalty repeal, Cushing said. He suggested the state is at a “moment in history” in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers, law enforcement, representatives of the state’s judicial branch and many residents are ready to abolish capital punishment.

Cushing said the death penalty isn’t any more of a deterrent to would-be killers than the prospect of life without parole. And he believes it “makes rock stars out of killers …; which I can’t stand.” And most of all, he said, “It doesn’t do the one thing everyone really wants to have, which is to get that family member back. It doesn’t do that.”

“Sometimes it’s really hard to come to grips with the fact that you can’t change the past,” he said. “At some point, you have to make decisions about what you’re going to do in the future.”

The future he sees in New Hampshire is one without the death penalty.

“Everything is echoing. The world is moving to abolish the death penalty,” he said, citing that most of the world with the exception of countries like Iran, Iraq, China and Saudi Arabia have already taken that step.

“In the U.S., death sentences are down. The number of states that have the death penalty is shrinking. It’s a state, a national and a global trend,” Cushing said. “At lot of it has to do with people recognizing the death penalty is not a criminal justice sanction — it’s a human rights violation.”

State Rep. Elaine Andrews-Ahearn of Hampton Falls was also present at the conference in Concord on Thursday. She said she was an “enthusiastic, die-hard supporter” of Cushing’s bill and felt certain it would pass due largely to what she said was Cushing’s strong influence.

“Renny’s going to do it this time,” Andrews-Ahearn said. “People pay attention because it’s him.”

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