Concord Monitor Editorial: The troubled journey to death row

Sunday, July 27, 2014
New Hampshire’s law sanctioning capital punishment got a stay of execution in April when the state Senate split 12-12 on a repeal bill Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would sign. New Hampshire is the only New England state to impose the death penalty. The campaign to abolish it will continue, and the outcome could depend on the results of the November election. Every candidate should be expected to make his or her position on capital punishment clear.

Some people oppose the death penalty for moral or religious reasons, others because, despite attempts to impose the ultimate penalty equitably and impartially, humans are fallible. Life and death mistakes are made. The system isn’t fair and thus, in our view, is not constitutional.

Once a month, on average, an inmate on death row is exonerated, typically by DNA evidence or a reconsideration of a case that was less than expertly handled. That has been going on for nearly 15 years. Since 2000, 317 people sentenced to death have be exonerated; two thirds of them have been African Americans. Meanwhile, many people who were killed in society’s name, even under existing laws, should not have been.

Researchers, two of whom were law professors, took a hard look at the backgrounds of 100 people executed in 2012 and 2013. Their results were published recently in the Hastings Law Journal. For the most part, those put to death were not the nation’s most heinous criminals. It’s questionable whether some of them, given recent Supreme Court rulings, could truly be considered responsible for their actions to an extent that justified executing them for their crime.

The study found that 54 of the 100 executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness, including severe drug addiction that began as early as age 8. Six of the executed had schizophrenia; nine suffered post-traumatic stress; and three had bipolar disorder. Shockingly, nearly 90 percent of those executed showed some degree of intellectual impairment, had not turned 21 before their crime was committed or suffered severe childhood trauma.

New Hampshire, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, has one inmate on death row: Michael Addison, a black man who in 2006, at age 28, killed Michael Briggs, a young, white Manchester police officer with a wife and two young children.

Addison’s traumatic childhood came up during his 2008 trial. His mother, who was 15 when he was born, drank while pregnant with him and was a violent alcoholic who physically abused Addison. His father was a largely absent drug addict. As a boy, Addison was disruptive in school and placed in special education classes.

Expert witnesses at his trial disagreed about the extent of Addison’s childhood trauma, his intellectual capacity and whether he suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. Prosecutors argued that Addison did not suffer from the syndrome and was of average intelligence, but agreed that he did exhibit the symptoms of someone with an antisocial personality.

Jurors weren’t convinced that Addison’s troubled childhood offered them reason enough to sentence him to life without parole rather than death. We don’t know whether they were right or wrong about that, but we do believe that like the majority of those put to death in 2012 or 2013, he has factors in his background and makeup that call into question whether he has a normal person’s ability to exercise sound judgment and control his impulses.

If the majority of people executed by the judicial system have what court’s call diminished culpability because they suffer an intellectual disability, the system is unjust. The study published in the Hastings Law Journal is yet more proof that capital punishment can’t be administered fairly and thus shouldn’t be employed at all.

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