Lawmakers in New Hampshire, the lone state in New England to retain the death penalty, appeared to be on the verge of abandoning the practice Thursday after years of unsuccessful attempts to get rid of it with legislation.
A bill that would replace capital punishment with sentences of life in prison without parole passed the New Hampshire Senate with enough votes that it could withstand an expected veto from Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who last year vetoed a similar measure.
Previous attempts to eliminate capital punishment in New Hampshire have failed over the years because of gubernatorial vetoes or, in 2014, a tied vote. This new bill, if it becomes law, would make New Hampshire the latest in a string of states nationwide to halt the use of the death penalty or abolish it outright.
A potential repeal in New Hampshire would not stop any looming lethal injections or affect a sizable death row population, as did the recent move by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to block executions there. New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939, and it has only one person on death row — Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing Michael Briggs, a Manchester police officer, two years earlier. It was unclear when or whether Addison would be executed, as the state has said it lacks the drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection.
But the possibility of the change in New Hampshire, coming so close after Newsom’s move in California, has a symbolic meaning at a time when capital punishment has increasingly become the province of just a handful of states that still regularly carry it out. The death penalty has become less popular over the past quarter-century, with polls showing support declining significantly since the mid-1990s.
The bill in New Hampshire — H.B. 455 — states that it “changes the penalty for capital murder to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole.” This would not be retroactive, so Addison’s sentence would remain unchanged and instead apply only to people convicted of capital murder on or after the day the measure takes effect.
On Thursday, Sununu reiterated his opposition to abandoning capital punishment.
“Governor Sununu continues to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty,” his office said in a statement.
Sununu, who took office in 2017, vetoed a similar bill last year that would have abolished capital punishment. One of his predecessors, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), had also vetoed a death penalty repeal measure in 2000.
When Sununu vetoed last year’s bill, he explained the decision by saying that while some people in other states had been wrongfully convicted or lacked an adequate defense, he maintained that New Hampshire has not seen such cases and that he believed the state “can continue to apply the death penalty in a sparing, fair and just manner.” He also said the death penalty was a necessary action in some cases.
“Abolishing the death penalty in New Hampshire would send the wrong message to those who commit the most heinous offenses within our state’s borders, namely that New Hampshire is a place where a person who commits an unthinkable crime is guaranteed leniency,” he said in his veto message.
The newer legislation he now must consider has passed with enough support that it could become law regardless of a veto. The bill passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives last month by a vote of 279 to 88. On Thursday, the smaller Senate passed it with a vote of 17 to 6. Advocates for abandoning capital punishment praised the move Thursday, noting that Republicans were among those supporting the bill.
“The vote to end New Hampshire’s death penalty included many conservative Republican lawmakers,” Hannah Cox, national manager of the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “They join a growing number of GOP state legislators around the country who feel strongly that capital punishment does not comport with their conservative beliefs, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility, and valuing life.”
Sununu will have five days to decide whether to veto the measure. If he does, that veto can be overturned by two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. His veto will be upheld if either chamber fails to reach that threshold, which happened last year.
The situation in New Hampshire carries echoes of what Nebraska experienced in 2015. That year, lawmakers voted to override the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and abolish the death penalty, only for voters to reverse the decision in 2016. Last year, Nebraska went on to carry out its first execution in 21 years.
Even without the legislation, it remains unclear what would happen with Addison’s death sentence. New Hampshire does “not currently have drugs for lethal injections, nor do we plan on obtaining them,” a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections wrote in an email last month. The state does allow for hanging to be used as a backup method of execution if lethal injection is unavailable, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that collects data on capital punishment.