Once Again, New Hampshire Almost Abolishes the Death Penalty

Once Again, New Hampshire Almost Abolishes the Death Penalty

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The New Hampshire legislature this spring passed S. 593, a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty, and, effective at the start of next year, replace it with mandatory life imprisonment without parole. On June 21, Gov. Christopher Sununu (R) vetoed the measure.

Sununu’s veto message defended his state’s restraint with the death penalty: only one inmate is on Death Row, and the state’s last execution came in 1939. But, citing a notorious home-invasion murder, he argued some crimes are so heinous he’d decided to stand with their victims. Eliminating the death penalty would “send the wrong message” to those who might commit such crimes, and he vowed New Hampshire “will never be a haven” with guaranteed leniency for those who kill while committing a serious crime.

Sununu’s veto message also noted ex-governors had earlier fought abolishing the state’s death penalty or even urged expanding it. In 2000, former governor Jeanne Shaheen (D) vetoed a bill similar to that Sununu vetoed this year. In 2004, Gov. Peter Benson (R) struck down a bill to raise the minimum age for capital punishment from 17 to 18.

After the legislature again narrowly passed an abolition bill in 2009, then-governor John Lynch (D) vetoed it but allowed the creation of a study commission, which by a 12-10 margin recommended both against abolishing the state’s death penalty and against expanding it. Even so, Lynch backed, and eventually signed, a bill extending the death penalty to home-invasion killings.

Despite Sununu’s opposition, the legislative record suggests the vetoed bill might have cut some areas of state spending. After assessing the bill’s budget impact, the state’s judicial branch said the measure might reduce its outlays since a separate penalty phase would no longer be required in capital murder cases.

But the judicial branch also noted there had only been penalty phase proceedings in two trials over the past decade, and none are pending, so whatever savings might come from abolishing death penalty phase trials would be infrequent and hard to predict.

The state’s public defenders’ agency noted it had represented just two defendants facing possible death sentences over the past two decades. In one case, the agency incurred no added expenses, since the defendant early pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. The other case, however, still isn’t finished after over nine years; the agency’s already spent more than $2.8 million, so the legislation might bring significant savings for the state.

The New Hampshire Department of Justice observed death penalty cases are costlier to investigate and bring. In the two capital murder cases, it’s brought over the past two decades, one cost $1.3 million to prosecute, and the other has already cost $2.5 million and could continue for several more years. But since prosecution cost vary widely for both capital murders and killings with lesser charges, the agency predicted prosecution expenses would fall if the new bill became law, but couldn’t estimate by how much.

The Granite State’s corrections department said it couldn’t predict the cost impact on state prisons without knowing how many inmates might be affected, while the state’s association of county governments predicted the measure wouldn’t increase or decrease costs for county jails.