Common Questions About the Death Penalty

Doesn’t the Death Penalty Deter Crime?

A national meta-study[1]of deterrence and the death penalty shows no reliable correspondence between the use of the death penalty and murder rates. In fact, states without the death penalty have lower incidences of murder[2]. All the other New England states have already repealed the death penalty, with no known negative effects and saving millions of tax dollars used for capital cases, like the $5.5 million NH has already spent on the Addison case.

Shouldn’t we keep the death penalty for the most heinous murders?

Every murder is heinous to those who have lost a loved one. Our governments should not be in the business of creating a hierarchy of victims.

But even if our intention is to reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” in practice, regardless of the specifics of the crime, the factors most likely to determine who gets the death penalty are the race and income level of the defendant. The sole individual on death row in New Hampshire is a poor black man who killed a police officer while fleeing from a crime. The same year, a wealthy white man was convicted in a premeditated murder-for-hire crime, which is arguably more heinous, but received a life sentence instead of a death sentence.

While the severity of the murderer’s acts naturally cause us to feel deep revulsion, if we allow anger and the need for vengeance to justify another killing, we risk losing a vital part of our own humanity.

Read more:

Who Actually Gets the Death Penalty?
Social Class and Capital Punishment
Race & the Death Penalty

Doesn’t our jury system ensure that a fair verdict and proper sentence are reached? 

It is actually prosecutors who decide to pursue the death penalty, not juries.

For death penalty trials, any potential juror who does not agree for any reason to the option of a state-sanctioned killing after a guilty verdict is automatically barred from serving. Conservatively, that leaves out at least half of all citizens.

Studies show that “death qualified” juries are more likely to be racially biased, to find defendants guilty, and to impose death sentences.

Learn more here.

Some members of law enforcement say the death penalty deters crime and that the death penalty is warranted for the killing of police officers.  Is a vote for repeal a vote against public safety or against the well-being and security of our police?

A 13-year longitudinal study showed that “[P]olice do not appear to have been afforded an added measure of protection against homicide by capital punishment.”[3] An FBI study showed that police are most in danger in the south, which accounts for 90% of all executions.[4]  (See our NH Law Enforcement Responds sheet).

A later study of officer murder rates in death penalty vs non-death penalty states corroborates these findings. Polices officers in non-death penalty states were 1.37x less likely to be murdered than in death-penalty states:[5]

NH is currently the only state in New England with the death penalty. If the death penalty was an effective tool for police officer safety, New Hampshire should have among the lowest rate of murders of police officers. But just the opposite is true; NH has one of the highest police officer murder rates among our neighboring states.

Testimony by Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, at the February 19, 2019 Criminal Justice Committee hearing on HB 455:

“As with murder rates generally, the rate at which police officers are killed in the line of duty is lower in the Northeast than in any other region of the country and, for the most part, is even lower across New England. The exception is New Hampshire, which is both the only state in New England with a death penalty and the only New England state whose officer-victimization rate is higher than the average as a whole for death-penalty states, non-death-penalty states, and transitional states. New Hampshire’s officer-victimization rate is higher than the rate in every region of the country except the South. Every other state in New England has a officer-victimization rate that is lower than the officer-victimization rates of every region in the country and of the rates in the death penalty states, the non-death penalty states, and the transitional states as a whole. Compared to every other state in New England, the death penalty has not made New Hampshire law enforcement officers safer.” [6]

Current and Former Members of NH Law Enforcement & Corrections Respond:

I strongly believe that the death penalty does not deter crime. A vote to repeal would enhance public safety and the security of our police officers. The millions of dollars saved could help fix the broken mental health system in NH.  The money saved could be used to fund prevention and treatment centers which are almost non-existent in our state. Mental health and substance abuse issues are the major problems facing the police and the citizens they protect so well. Please remember:  Desperate people do desperate things!

 –Richard O’Leary, Retired Deputy Chief, Manchester NH Police Dept (33 years of service)

The answer is “No” on both counts. The death penalty does not deter crime and we need look no further than the state’s recent history for guidance.  In 2006, Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs was shot and killed in the line of duty.  A much publicized affair was made that the death penalty would be sought for Officer Brigg’s killer, Michael Addison.  Yet, less than seven months later, Franconia Police Cpl. Bruce McKay was shot and killed.  And just five years later, with a convicted capital murderer sitting on death row, Greenland Police Chief Michael Maloney was shot and killed. Deterrence presumes careful forethought of the consequences before one commits a crime. In my experience, criminals almost never consider consequences.  That’s why they are criminals.  They don’t think like you and me. A vote to repeal is really a vote FOR public safety and the well-being and security of our police.  Repeal would free up the exorbitant amounts of money being spent on one case for better safety equipment and training for police.  It would free up money to provide additional and better services for those whom might otherwise be following the path to a life of crime.

–Raymond T. Dodge, Retired Police Chief, Marlborough, NH (25 years of service)

It is by my cherished Catholic faith to which I am deeply committed and my conscience which is a product of this faith, that I staunchly oppose the death penalty and seek its repeal. The appropriate response to heinous crimes is stricter sentences and truth in sentencing. No one wins and nothing is gained by taking yet another life! None of this should be construed as a lack of respect and sensitivity for victims and victims’ families, nor the law enforcement community in which I proudly serve.

 –Fintan P. Moore Jr., 15-year veteran, Keene Police Department

Like the general public, members of law enforcement are not of one mind about the death penalty.  Certainly, the killing of a police officer is a terrible crime, however, there is no proof that the existence of the death penalty serves as a viable deterrent to such an act. The existing studies to date, in fact, indicate to the contrary: that capital punishment is not a deterrent to violent crime. Consequently, a vote to repeal the death penalty is in no way a vote against either public safety or the safety and well-being of those in law enforcement. Rather, it is a vote to move away from the vengeance mentality of trying to deter violence with violence, to seeking more effective and morally justifiable means.

–The Rev, Dr. Cynthia T. Morse, OEF, former Parole Officer and Correctional Administrator in the Connecticut Department of Correction

A vote to repeal the death penalty will ensure that innocent persons will not be executed and is a means of ensuring the safety of those members of the public who are wrongly convicted of murder. Studies clearly show that the vast majority violent offenders do not consider potential punishment prior to engaging in violent behavior whether such behavior is directed at acquaintances, strangers or police. Any persons, civilian or police, who have ever “lost their temper” can attest to the fact that they did not consider the harm they might do to others as a result of their anger.  Therefore I do not believe that the repeal of the death penalty has any bearing on the well-being or security of police officers or anyone else.

 –F.R., Former Nashua Police Officer (14 years of service)

I do not believe that the death penalty deters crime in any way. Repealing the death is not a vote against public safety nor the well-being or security of police officers. Individuals who kill have no conscience or moral regards towards the lives of others and are only consumed with self-survival regardless of the cost to others.

–K.C., Retired Police Officer from South Carolina (20 years of service), now living in NH

Do we need the death penalty to protect correctional officers and make prisons safer?

A:  It may sound logical – once someone has a life sentence, he has nothing left to lose by killing in prison, right?  What this perspective does not account for is that people serving life sentences have to make prison their homes forever. Preserving even tiny pleasantries makes a big difference to their quality of life.  All the research and the real-life experience of wardens and corrections officers tells us that “lifers” are the least likely to commit murder in prison. Prisoners serving life without parole are often much less likely than the average inmate to break prison rules.

Prison murder overall is extremely rare. The murder of a corrections officer is even rarer. Many states haven’t had a single corrections officer killed in the last 30 years.  In fact, the average person outside is 82 times more likely to be murdered than is a prison staff member.

Life without parole can be “bad, horrible, or extremely horrible,” as one former warden put it. People serving life without parole will never again have the thousands of freedoms many of us take for granted – an extra hour in the sun, decent food, the touch of another human being.  The miserable environment of prison means lifers have to preserve even the tiniest advantages they can get.  The warden of the NH State Prison told the Death Penalty Study Commission in 2010 that people serving life sentences have “a calming influence” on the institution.

If people serving life had “nothing left to lose” by killing in prison, the same thing would be true for death row prisoners – you can’t be executed twice. Yet nearly all death row inmates live in prison for years or even decades without committing another murder.  The death penalty is no more of a deterrent for prison murder than it is for murder outside prison. If it were, one would expect more prison murders in non-death penalty states.  Yet looking at the last year for which data is available, 98% of prison murders occurred in jurisdictions that already have the death penalty.

So, the pro-death penalty thinking goes like this: we must kill each and every imprisoned capitol offender — including those who may later be found innocent — on the statistically small chance one might kill again, based on the idea that they will of course try, because they “have nothing to lose,” and despite all the safeguards. And despite all of other new England states, and many other US states, and all other Western first world nations, having already abolished the practice of executions without a “parade of horribles” befalling their states or countries.

Corrections Officials Respond:

“I’ve been in this system for over 40 years. I’ve been held hostage and been through multiple prison riots. If someone told me that the death penalty would protect me as a corrections officer, I would be offended. Safety inside prisons depends on proper staffing, programming, and effective reintegration of inmates back into society. The death penalty does not safeguard anybody.”

Calvin Lightfoot, former corrections officer, warden, and Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services for the state of Maryland

“A well-managed prison with proper classification and staffing can create incentives for lifers to behave while segregating and punishing those who are a threat before violence ever occurs. Our prison system already knows how to do this. The reality is that the death penalty is not, and never has been, a deterrent. Prison safety depends on proper staffing, equipment, resources and training. Certainly the money spent on trying to put someone to death for over 20 years could find better use in addressing those practical needs of our correctional system.”

John Connor, former chief special prosecutor for the state of Montana for 21 years,
prosecuting five death penalty cases involving prison homicides

“I don’t believe there is a single qualified prison warden in this country that wouldn’t trade the death penalty for more resources to keep his or her facility safe. The death penalty system is just a drain on those resources, and it serves no purpose in the safety of the public or prisons.”

Ron McAndrew, former warden, Florida State Prison, who presided over 8

Shouldn’t we keep the option of the death penalty for acts of terrorism?

If the horror of a terrorist attack were to happen in New Hampshire, it is highly likely that the perpetrators of the crime would be prosecuted by the federal government under the federal laws. New Hampshire doesn’t even have a definition of “terrorism” in its state statutes.

New Hampshire is thoughtful about its use of the death penalty. Doesn’t such infrequent use prove that the death penalty is used judiciously and with great care?

A: A death penalty sentence that is so rarely used can be confusing and hurtful to victims’ families, who are promised this punishment at the time of sentencing of their loved one’s murderer, when most will never see an execution take place. And a death penalty that is almost never used is just another name for life without parole – but at an exorbitantly greater cost to victims and taxpayers.

The infrequent use of the death penalty may seem judicious, but that very fact makes it arbitrary. In New Hampshire in recent years, we have had numerous murders that have qualified for the death penalty, including murders of police officers, where the death penalty was not pursued by prosecutors. Former New Hampshire Attorney General Philip McLaughlin recently said, “The next time the state executes a person, it will be more than 75 years and 1000 murders since that’s happened. [Is] that…just or fair or equal?… It will not be seen as fair by history.”

Finally, as long as the death penalty is on the books, its use will be a temptation for prosecutors despite the excessive cost and the risk of irreversible errors.  And prosecutors often use the threat of death as a bargaining chip for arriving at plea deals, a tactic that is certainly immoral, seeing how it can readily lead to forced confessions. Nor are prosecutors who want to appear “tough on crime” immune to political considerations that should not be applied in life and death decisions.

Regardless of cost, isn’t the price of justice for victims worth it?

A: There is no price on justice. But the question of the cost of the death penalty isn’t about counting dollars. It’s about counting lives. For every dollar we spend on a broken death penalty system, we are taking money away from programs that would actually prevent crime, keep us safer, and restore the lives of survivors of homicide victims.

A budget is a moral document because the choices we make about how to spend our precious resources are a reflection of what we think is important as a state. Paying for the death penalty means choosing a failed policy that makes irreversible mistakes, monopolizes our courts, and delays justice for families of murder victims. Our resources are finite, so that choice is made at the expense of proven programs such as gang prevention and drug treatment, desperately needed grief counseling and financial assistance to families of murder victims, training or better equipment that would keep police officers safer, proper staffing that would benefit prison guards and the prison environment, and evidence-based crime prevention programs that would keep our neighborhoods safer.






[5]From written testimony on NH HB 455, submitted by Robert Dunham of Death Penalty information Center on 2/19/19. See: DPIC Testimony and DPIC Graphic Exhibits (PDFs).