Group renews push to repeal N.H. death penalty

by Connie Eppich, originally published in Foster’s Daily Democrat.

CONCORD, NH — The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty wants to put itself out of business.

Coalition board member and House Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, led a news conference in Concord announcing the coalition’s renewed effort to pass a bill repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire. Cushing, whose father was murdered in 1988, said that support for the abolition of capital punishment is cutting across classic political divides.

Speaking on behalf of the bill were Roman Catholic Bishop Peter A. Libasci of the Manchester Diocese, Episcopal Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld (Diocese of New Hampshire), retired Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court Walter L. Murphy, and Ray Dodge, retired police chief for the town of Marlborough.

Reasons given for abolishing the death penalty included sanctity of life, its high cost, lack of crime deterrence and the possibility of executing an innocent person.

The crime of murder is horrifying because it violates the sacredness of life, Libasci told the crowd of about a hundred supporters gathered in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building, and demands a response. Grieving survivors want the perpetrator to understand the magnitude of the crime he or she has committed, but the death penalty does not bring about that understanding, he said. It only reinforces “the terrifying notion that there is ultimately no sacrilege in taking human life.”

The response must be restitution, the rehabilitation of a disordered life, not retribution.

Hirschfeld said that, when his hometown in Connecticut was rocked by a brutal home invasion involving the rape and murder of two young women and their mother, his instinct was to exact retribution that included the death penalty. However, as a Christian, he is called to protect his soul and those of his church from the sins of violence and hatred, even in the face of such horror. He said, “Our society and our souls are healthier when we refuse to be contaminated by the sin of violence, even when we claim to administer such violence in the name of justice.”

Dodge, who worked in law enforcement for 25 years, said that, while we have a good criminal justice system, it is not perfect. But it works because mistakes can be corrected and the wrongly convicted set free. The death penalty destroys that safeguard. He said, “There is no raising an innocent, wrongly executed man from the grave.”

Murphy, chair of the New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission that submitted its report in 2010, said, “There is not one whit of evidence that the death penalty deters crime.” Noting that the purpose of punishment, besides rehabilitation, is to protect the public, he said that the death penalty does not protect the public any more than life in prison without parole.

Compared to $35,000 a year for prison room and board, the cost of capital punishment is prohibitive. Murphy said the Michael Addison case has already cost $5 million in five years. Lawmakers gathered for the event laughed when Murphy suggested they go to their constituents and tell them that New Hampshire is spending $1 million a year and the only people getting any money are lawyers. Money, he said, that could be better spent funding social services for grieving families or solving the 130 unsolved murders in the state.

When asked why the coalition is pushing to pass the bill this year, Cushing said, “I think it’s a moment in history.” Last year, New Hampshire had two candidates for governor who opposed the death penalty. Seven states in seven years have abolished the death penalty. Cushing said, “This is something that has community support from many different quarters.”

Called the “heart of the abolition movement in the New Hampshire Legislature,” by coalition’s board chair Barbara Keshen, Cushing has worked tirelessly for many years to garnish support for repeal of the death penalty.

Before his father’s murder, Cushing opposed the death penalty. After his father’s death, he said that, if he asked for the death penalty, then not only would the murderer have taken his father’s life, but he would also have taken his values and the values that his father had lived by. Cushing said, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then really violence and evil trumps and we’re much the worse for it.”

Asked if consideration would be given in the Legislature to making crimes covered by the death penalty subject to mandatory life in prison, Cushing said that since 1985 the law has ensured that those convicted of first-degree murder are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The law provides assurance to the community that predatory people aren’t going to be released out onto the streets again.

Cushing said, “We can protect the public without having ritual killings.”

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