In Historic Vote, New Hampshire Lawmakers Pass Bill to Abolish State Death Penalty Law

May 18, 2000 12:00 am

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CONCORD, NH — Responding to emotional testimony from murder victims’ families — two of them state representatives — New Hampshire’s 24 senators today gave final passage to legislation to abolish the state’s death penalty law.

Following a shift of support by three key senators, the measure passed 14-10, marking the first time in more than 20 years that a state legislature has voted to end executions. The bill was introduced with bipartisan support in the state House last year; it passed on March 9, 2000.

Claire Ebel, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the shift toward passage of the measure could be attributed in large part to moving testimony from families of murder victims, as well as deepening public concern about the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty.

“So many different voices have been crying out for so long for an end to the death penalty and the fact that they are beginning to be heard is in itself a triumph,” Ebel said.

In emotional testimony before a House committee earlier this year, Rep. Jane Kelley (D-Hampton) described how she still opposed the death penalty even after her granddaughter was murdered by a man who shot her repeatedly from behind. Rep. Max Sargent (R-Hillsboro), whose niece and nephew were murdered, said that he decided to change his voice after talking with his sister, the children’s mother.

Families of murder victims have objected to the death penalty for a variety of reasons, the ACLU said, including moral and religious convictions against killing; the feeling that killing the perpetrator of the crime is not a fitting memorial to their loved one; and the belief that the resources spent pursuing death sentences and executions are better spent on prevention and providing necessary support to survivors of violent crime.

The final step of the journey toward abolition, however, is Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s desk; if she vetoes the bill, as expected, the original vote of 191-163 in the House would not be sufficient for an override.

But while Gov. Shaheen has voiced strong “personal” support for the death penalty, the economic long-term interests of the state may persuade her to put private considerations aside, the ACLU said.

Seeking to bring economic vigor to her state, Shaheen has been assiduously courting business interests in Western Europe, where the death penalty has been virtually abolished. As one lawmaker pointed out during a hearing earlier this year, “the world is watching” the outcome of New Hampshire’s vote.

The state’s death penalty law is already one of the nation’s most restrictive, applying only to a short list of crimes, including murder of a law enforcement or corrections officer, murder for hire and murder during a rape or attempted rape. The bill would changing the penalty for those crimes to life without parole, the mandatory existing penalty for 1st-degree murder. The last execution in the state was in 1939.

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