by Kelly Matula
On May 30, 2019, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers made New Hampshire the twenty-first state to abolish the death penalty when the Senate followed the House in voting to override the governor’s veto of a bill to end capital punishment in the state. The override narrowly reached the two-thirds majority required by the state’s Constitution in both houses, passing 247 to 123 in the House and 16 to 8 in the Senate. These margins were slightly narrower than those by which the original repeal bill had passed before the governor’s veto.
In response to the veto decision, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu tweeted, "I have consistently stood with law enforcement, families of crime victims and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty because it is the right thing to do. I am incredibly disappointed that the Senate chose to override my veto." However, it is important to note that, while support for capital punishment has typically been a Republican position, there were more than a few Republicans whose votes showed that they disagree with Gov. Sununu that continuing this violent practice is “the right thing to do.” The roll-call records for the veto override votes show that 26 Republican House representatives (of 167 Republicans in the New Hampshire House) and 4 of the 10 Republicans in the Senate voted to override the governor’s veto. Thirty Republicans may not seem like many, but the number is encouraging given the traditionally stark split on this issue between the U.S.’s two major parties. And given the narrow margins at play in these particular votes, those thirty individuals’ votes made a great deal of difference.
Indeed, the recent history of New Hampshire’s death penalty has been marked by other narrow votes. Two other attempts to end the practice within the last two decades were blocked by gubernatorial vetoes, one in 2000 and one by Gov. Sununu just last year. And in 2014 a repeal law failed to pass by a single vote.
A Washington Post article covering the repeal called the debate about the law “largely symbolic” because New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939 and does not currently have the means of executing its only death row inmate, Michael Addison, whose sentence has not changed because the law was not written to be retroactive. Lawmakers who opposed the repeal took a similar tack, arguing in part that since the death penalty law had been “narrowly crafted”—the punishment was only available for those found guilty of murder in a small number of specific circumstances—it did not need to be repealed. However, no law protecting people from the violence of capital punishment—no matter how infrequently it had been practiced before the law was passed—should be considered symbolic. From “infrequently”—or, more concretely, “not in eighty years”—to “hopefully never again” (provided Addison’s sentence is also overturned, as eventually happened to inmates left on death row after Connecticut banned the death penalty in 2015) might appear to some to be only a small change. But that small change makes a world of difference for the people and the culture of the state in which it has been made. It can help the state in question to, in the words of state Sen. Bob Guida, a self-identified pro-life Republican, “transcend” the practice of executing people and recognize that “we’re better than that.”While Gov. Sununu’s tweet included “advocates for justice”among those who were against the death penalty repeal, Sen. Guida and others recognize that it is only by abolishing the death penalty that states come closer to acting in ways that are truly just.
Now, thanks to a committed group of New Hampshire lawmakers—who tried just one more time, even though it had been less than a year since the governor had vetoed the last death penalty repeal bill, and some of whom took a stance that is historically unusual in their party and helped a law narrowly pass—there is one more state in the United States where the death penalty is illegal. Debates and moratoria are happening in other states, so hopefully in the coming years that number will continue to rise, state by state, until the United States no longer puts criminals to death at all.