After two hours of testimony from family members of homicide victims and religious, legal, and human rights activists on January 30, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 12 to 0 to recommend that the latest proposal to expand New Hampshire’s death penalty be defeated.

The bill, HB 1706, would expand the capital murder statute to make execution possible for those convicted of three additional sets of crimes: homicide in conjunction with robbery, the deaths of two or more people associated with any criminal act, and homicides committed in circumstances that are “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Ross Terrio (Manchester) described his bill as an attempt to close a “loophole,” the state’s lack of a law allowing execution for homicides committed in conjunction with all other felonies.  He also stated the Old Testament provides religious backing for the use of capital punishment.

But Rep. Terrio was the only person who spoke up for the expansion bill, and his arguments were explicitly refuted on legal and religious grounds by a parade of speakers.  

Others spoke from personal experience as mothers, daughters, sons, and grand-sons of homicide victims to explain that the death penalty does nothing to bring about “closure” but instead extends the grief experienced by those who have lost their loved ones to violence.  “The desire for revenge and the desire for justice are not the same thing,” said Margaret Hawthorn of Rindge, whose daughter Molly Hawthorn-MacDougall was murdered last year in Henniker. The desire for revenge is a poison that can destroy the possibility of our finding any peace in the face of our loss.” 

Nina Gardner, who represents concerns of the Judiciary before the Legislature and whose office provides funding for criminal defense of indigent defendants, stated that the bill created subjective standards on issues such as the meaning of “heinous” and that it could be applied to cases in which deaths were associated with relatively minor offenses such as driving with an expired license.   The “incredibly expansive” categories would lead to multiple death penalty cases a year, she said. 

Gardner said the State has already spent more than $1.3 million on the defense of Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Michael Briggs, and spent $1.7 million more on Addison’s prosecution.  The cost will continue to rise through years of appeals, for which the State will pick up the tab for defense, prosecution, and court costs.

Laura Bonk, whose mother was murdered in 1989, said “I don’t want my tax money spent on the death penalty.”  

Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Concord’s Temple Beth Jacob explained that notwithstanding the “eye for an eye” language of the Hebrew Bible, “approximately 2000 years ago, the ancient Rabbis whose responsibility it was to interpret the laws of the Bible concluded that application of the death penalty had never occurred in the Bible,” and created standards by which the death penalty would virtually never be applied.   On this, she says all branches of Judaism are in agreement.

Others who spoke in opposition to the bill included Rev. Jason Wells of Grace Episcopal Church in Concord, Rev. Jonathan Hopkins of Concordia Lutheran Church, Arnie Alpert of the AFSC, Renny Cushing of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights, Michael Iacopino of the NH Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Len Korn, the former president of the NH Psychiatric Society, Ilse Andrews, a member of Amnesty International from Exeter, Chris Dornin and Peter Bearse of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, and Ray Bilodeau of the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Bilodeau, a former probation officer, outlined a variety of reasons the death penalty should be repealed, not expanded, and explained why abolition is consistent with conservative principles.  “Expanding the death penalty as proposed in HB 1706 will expand all the problems inherent in capital punishment, and will offer no additional measure of safety for our communities,” he said.  “Please recommend it inexpedient to legislate.”

The Committee, which just last year voted to recommend expanding the death penalty to all cases of purposeful homicide, heeded his advice.  With no debate, all twelve members voted to support an “inexpedient to legislate” motion, to be placed on the “consent calendar” of an upcoming House session.  Although any Representative can take a bill of the consent calendar and bring it to the floor for a vote, the unanimous recommendation of a committee is rarely overturned.  

Rep. Elaine Swinford, who chairs the committee, told the Union Leader, “I don’t believe we need to do anything with the death penalty.  I don’t want to expand it or take it away.”  If that’s the case, we’ll be able to count on her leadership to make sure HB 162 stays “on the table” or gets defeated should it ever return to her committee or the House floor.  

Click here to read an article about the hearing from Murder Victim Families for Human Rights.

Click here to read an article about the hearing in the Concord Monitor.