New Hampshire House Passes Bill To Repeal Death Penalty

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By HOLLY RAMER Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — With a veto-proof majority, the New Hampshire House voted Thursday to repeal the state's death penalty after hearing from a freshman Democrat who fled Afghanistan as a child and a longtime Republican lawmaker grieving his wife's recent death.

New Hampshire's capital punishment law applies in only seven scenarios: the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer or judge, murder for hire, murder during a rape, certain drug offenses or home invasion and murder by someone already serving a life sentence without parole. Lawmakers have considered bills to repeal it every session for the last two decades, and passed them twice, but lacked the votes to override gubernatorial vetoes.

In the most recent case, the Senate fell two votes short of the 16 needed to override Republican Gov. Chris Sununu's veto last year. But after the November election, both chambers appear to have veto-proof majorities in favor of repeal. Thursday's vote in the House was 279-88, well over the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.

Among those arguing for repeal was Safiya Wazir, a 27-year-old Democrat whose family fled the Taliban when she was 6. She said the United States should remove itself from the troubling list of nations endorsing government-sponsored violence, and she invoked New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die" motto.

"Let's put the emphasis on living," she said. "New Hampshire is better than this."

Rep. David Welch, has supported the death penalty for 34 years as a lawmaker and former chairman of the Criminal Justice committee. But his wife's death two years, two months and seven days ago changed that, he said.

"The grief I've experienced since then has been horrible and it has not diminished," he said. "An inmate on death row has loved ones that care for him in spite of what he has done. The victim's family goes through grief similar to what I went through. When that inmate is put to death, there's another family going through that grief. Both families are innocent, and they both went through the same thing."

The state hasn't executed anyone since 1939, and the repeal bill would not apply retroactively to Michael Addison, who killed Manchester Police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006 and is the state's only death row inmate. But supporters of capital punishment argue that courts will see it differently. Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, mentioned Briggs's death in arguing against repeal, but focused much of her speech on recounting the brutal machete and knife attack that killed a Mont Vernon woman during a home invasion in 2009. The death of Kimberly Cates led to an expansion of the death penalty two years later.

"The current law that covers limited situations of murder is working, so why change it?" she said. "I believe that life in prison is not justice for a heinous crime such as this."

While Cates's husband supported expanding the death penalty, Rep. Renny Cushing, said many family members of murder victims oppose capital punishment. His own father was murdered in 1988, and he has sponsored multiple repeal bills over the years.

"If we let those who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs and we all lose," he said. "That does nothing to bring back our loved ones. All it does is widen the circle of violence."

The bill now goes to the Senate. Sununu told reporters last month he will veto it if it gets to his desk.

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