New Hampshire lawmakers vote to repeal death penalty with veto-proof majority

Efforts to do away with capital punishment have been gathering steam in state legislatures across the country.
State Rep. Renny Cushing speaks on the house floor in favor of repealing the state's death penalty on March 12, 2014, at the Statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire.
State Rep. Renny Cushing speaks on the house floor in favor of repealing the state's death penalty on March 12, 2014, at the Statehouse in Concord, New Hampshire.Jim Cole / AP file

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By Savannah Smith

The New Hampshire Senate voted Thursday to repeal the death penalty with a veto-proof majority, setting the stage for the state to become the latest to outlaw capital punishment.

The 17-6 vote comes more than a month after the state House of Representatives passed the repeal bill with its own two-thirds, veto-proof majority. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who previously threatened to veto the measure, said Thursday that he remains opposed to repeal.

"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.

State Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, a sponsor of the bipartisan bill, cheered the vote as "historic." Both Cushing's father and brother-in-law were murdered, personal tragedies that he said did not change his opposition to capital punishment.

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"New Hampshire's poised to live without the death penalty," Cushing said in an interview Thursday.

Though the measure was expected to pass, Cushing said he found the reflections from senators from both parties "incredibly eloquent and powerful."

He said he was particularly moved by the speech of Republican state Sen. Ruth Ward, whose father was killed when she was 7, according to The Associated Press.

"That just touched me because she talked from the heart about being a family of a murder victim and not wanting the death penalty," Cushing said. "It was very compelling.”

If the governor is unsuccessful in blocking the bill from becoming law, New Hampshire — where one person remains on death row — will join 20 other states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty.

Experts note that similar repeal efforts have taken off in state legislatures across the country, mostly in places where the death penalty has been seldom issued in recent years as lawmakers in both parties have increasingly embraced the issue.

Of the 17 state senators who voted in favor of repeal Thursday, five are Republicans and 12 are Democrats.

“What we’re seeing in New Hampshire is consistent with a national trend and that is increasing bipartisan support for repealing death penalty statutes," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Thursday.

Last year, Sununu vetoed a similar bill aimed at repeal and the Senate fell just two votes short of overriding it. Cushing said that should the governor reject the new measure, he is confident that the level of support in the Legislature — where Democrats control both chambers — will be sustained.

"I don’t think the governor really understands victims," Cushing said. "He equates being a victim with support for capital punishment, and if he took the time to meet with family members of murder victims who are opposed to the death penalty, he might gain a different perspective, and I think it would help him understand why people want to repeal capital punishment."