Jurisprudence

New Hampshire Legislature Overrides Veto, Abolishes Death Penalty

New Hampshire State House
The New Hampshire State House
Mark Joseph Stern

The New Hampshire Legislature repealed capital punishment on Thursday, becoming the last state in New England to abolish the practice.
Twenty other states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have also eliminated the death penalty. In two more states, California and Pennsylvania, the governor has imposed a moratorium on executions. Even as the Supreme Court’s conservative majority makes capital punishment easier to carry out, states seem to be moving away from executions, leaving America’s broken death penalty system to collapse under its own weight.

New Hampshire’s path to abolition was repeatedly blocked by Republican Gov. Christopher Sununu. Although he often touts his centrist credentials, Sununu is a staunch defender of the death penalty, asserting that crime victims and law enforcement deserve to see certain offenders killed. In 2018, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans voted to rescind New Hampshire’s death penalty law. But Sununu vetoed the bill, declaring that “those who would commit the most heinous offenses” should not “be guaranteed leniency.” When Democrats gained large majorities in the November election, they renewed their push for repeal, joined by moderate and libertarian Republicans. This year, they easily passed a bill ending capital punishment—which was promptly vetoed by Sununu, who stated that to “repeal the death penalty today would deprive future victims of the justice they deserve.”

In May, however, the House overrode Sununu’s veto after a handful of Republicans bucked the governor to vote with Democrats. And on Thursday, the Senate followed suit, with four Republicans (Senators Bob Guida, Harold French, John Reagan, and Ruth Ward) joining Democrats to abolish the practice by a vetoproof two-thirds vote. The bipartisan vote converts the maximum penalty in New Hampshire to life in prison without parole. Sununu issued a statement decrying the override and stating that he was “incredibly disappointed.”

New Hampshire has not executed a prisoner since 1939 and has no death chamber. There is, however, one individual on its death row: Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 2008. The repeal bill does not formally convert Addison’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. But criminal justice advocates expect the state judiciary to convert Addison’s sentence now that the death penalty has been abolished. In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court converted remaining death row inmates’ sentences to life imprisonment after the Legislature repealed capital punishment. It seems likely that the New Hampshire Supreme Court will do the same for Addison. (The state Constitution prohibits “cruel or unusual punishments,” and it is difficult to see how a punishment that cannot be applied today could be lawfully carried out against past offenders.)

Thursday’s vote was the result of a long campaign that brought together progressives, libertarians, and religious activists. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty steered the advocacy fight alongside local religious leaders. Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, led the legislative battle, bringing his pro-life GOP colleagues on board.
Cushing’s father and brother-in-law were murdered, but he pushed relentlessly to end “the cycle of pain” caused by capital punishment. On Thursday, in New Hampshire, that cycle was halted for good.