NEW HAMPSHIRE was not exactly the death-penalty capital of the country. The last time the Granite State executed someone, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was midway through his second term. Yet it was still cause to celebrate when New Hampshire’s legislature last week overwhelmingly banned the death penalty, making it the 21st state to end the practice. Fully half the states now have permanent bans or governor-imposed moratoriums in place.
The vote had to be overwhelming: Gov. Chris Sununu (R) fiercely opposed the measure, so the legislature needed a supermajority to override his veto. That a supermajority of state lawmakers anywhere agreed to abolish the death penalty made it a remarkable moment in the slow shifting of thought on the punishment. Decades have passed since Michael Dukakis encountered ridicule during his 1988 presidential run for his opposition to executions and Bill Clinton made a show of returning to Arkansas to preside over an execution in 1992.
Death sentences have become far rarer since the get-tough-on-crime days. Forty-two people were sentenced to die last year, down from a historical high of 315 in 1996, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2018, for the first time in a quarter-century, the number of people with active death sentences nationwide dropped to below 2,500. The reasons range from declining crime rates to concerns over the high cost of administering the death penalty to regular exonerations that cast doubt on the criminal-justice system’s ability to apply the punishment fairly. Two more people sentenced to death were exonerated last year.
In New Hampshire, only one man was on death row before the legislature acted. Because the ban is not retroactive, the convicted murderer, Michael Addison, will keep his sentence, even though the state currently has no drugs with which to execute him. But now that lawmakers have declared that the death penalty is inappropriate for the Granite State, Mr. Sununu should consider commuting Mr. Addison’s sentence to life in prison.
After the legislature overrode his veto, Mr. Sununu insisted that he stood in opposition with “law enforcement, families of crime victims, and advocates for justice.” Yet, just because well-meaning people can disagree, it does not wipe away the punishment’s many deficiencies. It is expensive, applied unevenly across states, counties and cities, with an undeniable racial bias, and for all that it offers far too little in value as a deterrent to serious crime. Perhaps most important, it violates a principle that the developed world has struggled over centuries to fully embrace: that humans have inherent dignity, and the state should seek never to put itself in the position of snuffing them out.