New Hampshire is the only state in New England that still has the death penalty. That has to change. This archaic practice defies New Hampshire values and defies justice. The state has come close to repealing capital punishment in the past only to fall short.
There is now a renewed push to end this barbaric punishment in the current legislative session. A bill in the State Senate (SB593), which would replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole for convictions after January 2019, has broad support. It was approved by a 14-to-10 vote in the state Senate in March, and sailed through the New Hampshire House with a vote today of 223 to 116.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu, who has threatened to veto it. Though he has stated his support for the death penalty, he would not be the first to change his views. Views among legislators on the death penalty have evolved in recent years, and the state Senate vote is a prime example. Many who supported the repeal bill this year had previously voted against repeal. They shifted because the best way to ensure that New Hampshire does not execute an innocent person is to repeal the death penalty. As one witness said at the House hearing on the repeal bill: “It is either dangerously arrogant or incredibly naïve to believe that New Hampshire’s criminal justice system is infallible.”
The witness was Barbara Keshen, who now heads the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Several years ago, Keshen, who was a public defender, had been assigned to represent Richard Buchanan, who was charged with raping and murdering his girlfriend’s young daughter, Elizabeth Knapp. All the evidence seemed to indicate that Buchanan committed the crime. The state Attorney General reassured people in the neighborhood that they need not be in fear as they had the guy who did it. Keshen has said even she believed her client was guilty. The prosecutor said he was going for the death penalty.
But for the DNA contained in a condom that was later found, tying the crime to a next-door neighbor, Buchanan would have almost certainly been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced to death. The case against Buchanan was such a slam-dunk that when the DNA evidence from the condom first came back, even Keshen said she did not believe it.
Some hold this case up as proof that wrongful convictions do not happen in New Hampshire. But the opposite is true. The Buchanan case shows the fallibility of the system and the potential for wrongful convictions in New Hampshire. If DNA evidence had not been discovered in the Buchanan case, the outcome could have been devastatingly wrong. It’s chilling to think that a life depended on finding a single exculpatory piece of evidence.
So long as the death penalty stays on the books, there is a risk of a wrongful capital conviction. Yet supporters of capital punishment in the state House insist that it should remain as a form of “deterrence.” That argument suffers from the same false logic of the “get tough on crime” philosophy that has driven criminal justice policy for decades. That philosophy has not made us safer; instead, it has led to mass incarceration and permanently subjected people with criminal records to second-class status.
The same goes for the death penalty. It does not act as a deterrent. People who commit capital crimes do not stop to weigh prison time versus death row. If the death penalty were a deterrent, states that repeal the death penalty would see spikes in their murder rate, but they don’t. In fact, states that do not have the death penalty have lower murder rates than states that still have it. On a national level, the United States has a per capita murder rate significantly higher than European nations, which abolished the death penalty years ago.
New Hampshire lawmakers have shown that the state is ready for abolition of this savage penalty. The only question is whether Gov. Sununu will defy the Legislature and demand that New Hampshire keep this ineffective, inhumane, and regressive practice on the books.