The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New Hampshire abolishes death penalty after lawmakers override governor

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) vetoed a bill that would repeal the death penalty in the state during an event at the Officer Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester, N.H., on May 3. (Nick Stoico/AP)

Lawmakers in New Hampshire voted Thursday to abolish the death penalty, overriding a veto from the state’s Republican governor and making it the 21st state to abandon capital punishment.

The vote by the New Hampshire Senate capped months of uncertainty about what would happen to capital punishment in the state, the last in New England to still have the death penalty.

This debate has been largely symbolic, because New Hampshire has neither an active death penalty system nor any executions on the horizon. The state has only one person on death row — Michael Addison, who was sentenced to death more than a decade ago for killing Michael Briggs, a Manchester police officer — and last carried out an execution in 1939.

Addison also does not face imminent execution, as corrections officials have said they do not have any lethal injection drugs or any plan to get them. The bill debated Thursday was not retroactive, leaving Addison’s sentence in place regardless of what happened.

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But with capital punishment on the decline nationwide, what happened in New Hampshire was closely watched by supporters and opponents of the death penalty. Before this week, 20 states had abandoned the death penalty — including eight that did so since 2007, a list that includes Maryland, Illinois and Washington state, where a court struck it down last year as unconstitutional.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire had tried to abolish the death penalty before but narrowly failed, running headlong into gubernatorial vetoes and, in 2014, falling short by a single vote.

After Gov. Chris Sununu (R) vetoed a bill last year abolishing the death penalty, lawmakers passed another measure this year with enough support to withstand a veto.

This bill “changes the penalty for capital murder to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole,” stripping away the possibility of a death sentence for such crimes.

Sununu vetoed the newer bill earlier this month while at a facility named for Briggs and alongside the fallen officer’s relatives, calling it “an injustice” to them, Briggs and other victims of violent crime.

In his veto message to lawmakers, Sununu wrote that “New Hampshire has always shown prudence and responsibility in its application of the death penalty.”

Sununu issued a statement moments after the Thursday vote criticizing the Senate.

“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,” he said. “I am incredibly disappointed that the Senate chose to override my veto.”

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Sununu’s veto set up a legislative showdown, because overriding it required two-thirds of both the New Hampshire House and Senate. Last week, the New Hampshire House voted to override Sununu’s veto, passing it more narrowly than it had the initial repeal bill months earlier. The bill abolishing the death penalty first passed the House in March by a vote of 279 to 88, while the veto override passed last week by a slimmer 247 to 123 vote.

The measure then went to the smaller Senate, which had, in April, voted 17 to 6 to abolish the death penalty. The veto override Thursday passed the Senate by a vote of 16 to 8.

Before the Senate vote Thursday, lawmakers stood to make impassioned remarks about their decisions. Some defended the state’s death penalty system and described it as a necessary penalty.

State Sen. Sharon Carson (R) described Briggs’s killing before suggesting that Addison’s death sentence may be overturned if the bill were passed, pointing as an example to what happened in Connecticut in 2015. Lawmakers there abolished the death penalty and left it in place for people previously sentenced, but the state Supreme Court later said it would be unconstitutional to execute them.

“I stand here in support of the victims,” Carson said. “Think about the victims here, people who have been murdered. Their family gets to visit them in a cemetery. They don’t get to go to a prison to visit their loved one, get letters, phone calls. The victim truly received a life sentence.”

State Sen. Bob Giuda (R), who described himself as pro-life, called an execution a “ghastly sight” in explaining why he planned to override the governor.

“I think we’re better than that,” he said. “I think our state moving forward needs to transcend that issue.”

Most states have the death penalty. Few actually carry out executions.

While the death penalty remains on the books in a majority of states, it is actively practiced in just a handful of them. The number of executions taking place annually has declined, as has the number of states seeking to carry out death sentences.

After Thursday’s vote, 29 states — along with the federal government — still have the death penalty, but that list includes such states as California and Pennsylvania, where governors have imposed moratoriums on executions; North Carolina, where executions have been blocked for years by court order; and Wyoming, which has no death row inmates.

More than 2,600 people sit on death rows across the United States, many of them in places where executions are not taking place, so it is unclear when or if those sentences will be carried out.

Some states have continued to regularly carry out executions — including Texas, Florida, Alabama and Georgia — but others seeking to do so have struggled to obtain the drugs necessary for lethal injections. Pharmaceutical firms have resisted having their products used in executions, leading to what is effectively a shortage, prompting lawmakers to debate or adopt other execution methods, such as the electric chair, nitrogen gas or the firing squad.