Posts Tagged ‘death penalty’

[This was first published in the Concord Monitor on May 31, 2019, the day after New Hampshire’s state Senate overturned the governor’s veto of a death penalty repeal bill.]

Oddly enough, it was a series of murders in 1997 that launched the campaign to abolish New Hampshire’s death penalty.

The killings of three police officers, the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl, and the murder of a judge and a journalist, all within a two-month period, created political conditions that made death penalty expansion politically popular, regardless of the fact that the recent murders were largely covered already by the state’s capital murder statute.

When the 1998 legislative session opened, Republican leaders of the state House and Senate teamed up with Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to introduce a bill greatly expanding the list of crimes punishable by execution. Passage appeared likely.

But two young legislators had another idea.

Reps. Renny Cushing of Hampton and Clifton Below of Lebanon already knew each other through the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance when they won election to the Legislature. Instead of simply arguing against the expansion bill, they introduced a floor amendment that would abolish it altogether.

Below, then 42 years old but already a veteran legislator, was the son of a Protestant minister and brought a preacher’s touch to his speech on the House floor. “When possible,” he said, “we should choose life over death, good over evil, the possibility of redemption over destruction, of healing over revenge, love over hate.”

Speaking about the potential of every human being, even those who have committed brutal violence, to repent and gain redemption, Below lifted up the example of John Newton, a slave ship captain who was responsible for the death of scores of men, women and children. Seeking redemption from such evil, Newton became an activist in the movement to abolish the slave trade and wrote the great hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

“Who are we to deny the possibility of redemption, true change and healing?” Below asked.

“Our desire for justice, retribution, and even revenge comes to us naturally,” he continued. “But why let murderers debase our values and diminish our love for life? Why allow murderers to make us participants in perpetuating cycles of violence and revenge? Why drag all of us down by placing the blood of unnecessary killing on all of our hands?”

Renny Cushing followed, addressing the 350 Houserenny hampton vigil 2014 members from his perspective as the son of a homicide victim. Ten years earlier, he recalled, his father was watching the Celtics on TV when he answered a knock at the front door. “Two shotgun blasts were fired through the screen, lifting him up and hurling him backwards, the shrapnel lifting the life out of him before my mother’s eyes.”

“The most difficult thing I have ever had to ask anyone was for help in getting my father’s blood cleaned off the floor and walls,” he explained.

With his infant daughter, Grace, in her mother’s lap in the House Gallery, Cushing told a rapt audience of lawmakers: “If we let those who murder turn us to murder, it gives over more power to those who do evil. We become what we say we abhor. I do not want the state of New Hampshire to do to the man who murdered my father what that man did to my family.”

What survivors want, said Cushing, is to know the truth about what happened, to have some form of justice, and to have the opportunity to heal. Killing the killer does none of those things, he said.

When the votes were counted, the Below-Cushing amendment failed, 155-195. But the impact was powerful, and the death penalty expansion measure was voted down, too, by an even larger margin, 137-215.

The ad hoc group of death penalty opponents who worked with Reps. Cushing and Below to defeat the expansion bill soon became the N.H. Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The coalition continued to make the case that killing those who have killed violates the moral principles of most religious traditions, that it does not deter murder or protect public safety, and that the resources spent on prosecutions in cases where execution is possible could be better spent on any number of socially useful purposes, such as giving actual aid to crime victims.

Over time, the coalition devoted additional attention to the documented cases of prosecutorial and judicial errors which placed innocent people on death row, and to the death penalty system’s demonstrated racial bias.

Speaking on the House floor this past March 8, Rep. Cushing, now the gray-haired chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, once more told his fellow lawmakers about his father’s murder, stating, “If we let people who kill turn us into killers, then evil triumphs and we all lose.”

The 2019 repeal measure passed the House by a vote of 279 to 88, and later cleared the Senate 17 to 6. The bill was later vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Rep. Cushing took to the House floor again last week to call for members to override the governor’s veto. “The death penalty doesn’t work,” he said. “It doesn’t work for victims. It doesn’t work for society.”

Like his colleague 21 years earlier, Cushing invoked the memory of John Newton and the words of “Amazing Grace.” “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see,” a lyric that speaks to the potential we all have to atone, to change and to act in accord with deeply held values.

“New Hampshire can live without the death penalty,” he concluded. The House and Senate agreed.

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“I’ve learned that words really do have power,” writes Shane Claiborne in  Executing Grace, subtitled, How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. “So do stories. And so does the Bible,” he writes, adding, “And so do facts.”

Claiborne, a prominent speaker, activist, and best-selling author, heads up Red Letter Christians, a group that aims “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.” He was in New Hampshire for talks in Manchester and Durham on November 11, both organized by the NH Council of Churches.

Before both audiences, Claiborne showed his ease sliding back and forth from theology to history to journalism, blending stories of murder victim family members, death row prisoners and exonerees, biblical characters, and the occasional public official.

“It’s hard to talk about the death penalty divorced from race,” he began, noting that in the USA, the death penalty belt overlaps the areas where states hung onto to slavery the longest, where lynching was commonly practiced, and where racial segregation was the law of the land. It’s also the “Bible Belt,” the region with the highest percentages of practicing Christians, and where what passes for “religious conservatism” has the most political influence.

“Why do we still have the death penalty?” Claiborne asks. “It’s because of Christians.”

But what if Christians – and others – took seriously the idea that “there’s a way to transcend evil without mirroring it?” And what if we adopted an approach to justice rooted in righteousness and healing the wounds of the world rather than vengeance? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It wouldn’t be just the death penalty that would left behind, it would be the whole punishment-based approach to criminal offenses. It’s a big reach for many, but Shane Claiborne can make as compelling a case for it as I’ve heard.

But what about New Hampshire, which is far in miles and politics from the Bible Belt, and is thought to be one of the least churched states in the country? Here we are, still hanging onto the death penalty nearly 80 years after the most recent execution. We might start by making the case that even here in the “deep north,” racism has a disturbingly persistent impact on attitudes and public policy. Can it be just a coincidence that the one person sentenced to be executed in New Hampshire in recent decades is a black man who killed a white man, while a rich white man on trial at the same time for hiring people to kill someone against whom he held a grudge escaped a death sentence?

But even here, there’s an anti-death penalty argument for just about anyone, and that’s where the facts bolster the theological approach, or vice versa. For example, anyone suspicious of a too-powerful state ought to be more than skeptical about a politically driven system for determining who should live and who should die. The jury in a capital case is the real “death panel.” Anyone who wants our tax dollars to be used carefully should scorn a system that bogs down the courts and ultimately costs more than lengthy imprisonment. Anyone who wants to deter crime should look at the studies which show the death penalty has little impact on promoting public safety or protecting the lives of law enforcement officers.

And anyone who wants to show compassion for people who have lost loved ones to homicide should, like Shane Claiborne, spend some time listening to them. “The more victims I have gotten to know and love, the more I have realized that there is not just one way to heal from trauma,” Claiborne writes.

“When it comes to the family members of the murdered, some of the most amazing stories of healing and closure I have heard or read are from families who found alternatives to execution for the offender. In contrast, some of the folks who still seem overcome with pain and anger and resentment were able to witness the execution of the offender. In other words,” Claiborne concludes, “the idea that an execution will bring closure or final justice is a mirage.”

“The death penalty extends trauma, exacerbates wounds,” he told the four-dozen people clustered in the parish hall at Brookside Congregational Church. “And any time we call for death, we undermine the possibility of redemption.”

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When Phil McLaughlin and Greg Smith held the office of Attorney General for the State of New Hampshire, each of them supported the death penalty.  No more.


                          Phil McLaughlin

McLaughlin says it’s not primarily a moral issue for him.  He says what changed his mind was the reaction of juries in two cases tried simultaneously in 2008.  In one, John Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty of capital murder of Jack Reid but spared the death penalty because jurors found in him something redeeming.

Twenty-eight days later another jury “decided to kill the black kid from Dorchester,” Michael Addison, who was found guilty of the murder of Michael Briggs and sentenced to be put to death by the State on behalf of its citizens.  “I will not be part of that,” McLaughlin said.

That sounds like a moral argument to me, but I have no need to argue the point.

Greg Smith, who was not able to be present, also sent a statement citing racial bias in the way the death penalty is applied as a reason for his change of heart.

For their role as advocates for death penalty repeal, the two former AGs were honored Friday with the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual Governor Badger Award, named for an 18th century governor who pushed for an end to capital punishment.  The Badger awards, and others given to outstanding volunteers, were presented at the Coalition’s annual dinner in Concord.   

Lincoln Caplan, a lecturer at Yale Law School who used to pen editorials on the death penalty for the New York Times, also spoke at the Coalition event Friday. PA100075 

                                  Lincoln Caplan

Caplan began by describing how the legal process was “subverted” decades ago to bolster the constitutionality of capital punishment through the acceptance of dubious scholarship by the US Supreme Court.  

Since then, legal and legislative support for executions has gradually faded.  Since 2007 New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Illinois  have repealed their death penalty statutes.  It’s “a striking retreat” from the death penalty, Caplan says, if not an outright moratorium.  A federal court ruling earlier this year in California, which declared that state’s death penalty to be unconstitutional, could prove to be another important step toward abolition, he suggested.

“In the end this is a moral issue,” Caplan said.  It always has been.  What is different now, he said, is “there is so much evidence about what a waste this is.”

New Hampshire’s legislature approved a repeal bill in 2000 only to have it vetoed.  This year the NH House approved repeal by a two to one margin, but the measure died in the State Senate, which deadlocked 12 to 12.  

Barbara Keshen, the Coalition’s chairperson, said repeal supporters have their attention on the upcoming election, in which all 400 House and 24 Senate seats are up for grabs.  

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I can’t say I ever dreamed about Joe Hill, the legendary songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World member. But on the hundredth anniversary of the verdict in a Salt Lake City court that would put him before a firing squad sixteen months later, he is once again in my waking thoughts.

It was probably Joan Baez singing about Joe Hill that first drew my attention to him. (No, I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I saw the film and listened to the record album.)

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,

They shot you Joe,” says I.

“Takes more than guns to kill a man,” said Joe,

“I didn’t die.”

My sister brought home a 1968 Phil Ochs album, “Tape from California,” with his ballad about Joe Hill’s life. Like Joe Hill did so many times, Ochs put new words to a familiar tune, in this case the English folk song, “John Hardy,” which had also been used by Woody Guthrie for his “Ballad of Tom Joad.”

Ochs described Joe’s arrival in New York as an immigrant from Sweden, how he took up with the IWW “cause the union was the only friend he had,” and how he began writing songs to raise the spirits of union members.

Now, the strikes were bloody and the strikes

Were black as hard as they were long

In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write

In the morning he would raise them with a song

The IWW – known as “The Wobblies” for reasons that remain a bit obscure – had a revolutionary vision of a single union that would unite workers across lines of race and national origin, across lines of gender, across industries, and even across borders to take away power from the capitalist class and put it in the hands of workers. As the final phrase of “Solidarity Forever,” a labor anthem written by an IWW member puts it, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old when the union makes us strong.”

The Wobblies believed in direct action, especially strikes, as the primary means for achieving power in the workplace and in the larger society. Their “anarcho-syndicalist” approach contrasted with the socialists who put up candidates for election.   But the radical movements of the early twentieth century found much in common. Eugene Victor Debs, for instance, was present at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905.

Joe played the fiddle and other instruments, but is not remembered as a musician. He was, however, a decent cartoonist and a brilliant lyricist, who took popular tunes and substituted new words.

Phil Ochs sang:

He wrote his words to the tunes of the day

To be passed along the union vine

And the strikes were led and the songs were spread

And Joe Hill was always on the line

The late folksinger and song-writer Utah Phillips used to say the IWW songwriters  used hymns because they had pretty tunes and wrote new words “so they’d make sense.” In that vein “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” becomes “Dump the Bosses Off your Backs.” The Doxology becomes,

Praise boss when morning work bells chime,

Praise him for bits of overtime,

Praise him whose wars we love to fight,

Praise him fat leech and parasite.

Joe Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a send-up of a hymn often sung by Salvation Army bands on street corners. During the free speech fights, when IWW members who were barred from using the same street corners to proselytize for the “One Big Union” took to the streets in acts of mass civil disobedience, Joe converted “In the Sweet By and By,” to “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).”

It was Joe Hill, who “more than any other one writer, had made the IWW a singing movement,” according to Joyce Kornbluh, editor of Rebel Voices: an IWW Anthology. His songs, and others, were printed in The Little Red Songbook, new editions of which the IWW would put out from time to time. The publication’s was designed so workers could easily fit it in their pockets and take it out on picket lines or in jail cells. (I’m proud to say I have a song in the 38th edition, on sale from the IWW.)

“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over,” Joe wrote in a letter from his prison cell. “I maintain that if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them … up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off them he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial in economic science.”

In addition to “The Preacher and the Slave,” Joe Hill is remembered for “There is Power in a Union,” “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” and “The Rebel Girl,” a song inspired by Concord native Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Joe Hill on Trial for Murder

When John Morrison, a Salt Lake City shopkeeper, and his son Arling were killed at their store on January 10, 1914, Joe Hill was living and working nearby. A victim of a never-explained gunshot wound received the same night, Hill was arrested and charged with the crime.

“In reality, there was virtually no evidence to suggest that the police had the right man,” writes William Adler, in an excellent biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon. “The state’s case was entirely circumstantial and leaned heavily on the theory that the younger

Morrison, in the moment before he had died, had fired the shot that had torn Hill’s chest. But the prosecutor could not prove that Morrison’ gun had been fired, let alone that Hill had been at the store. Nor could the state show a motive, or produce the murder weapons, or elicit testimony that positively identified the defendant. In short, the state failed to meet Utah’s statutory standard for a cased based on circumstantial evidence; that the chain of proof ‘be complete and unbroken and established beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

Hill insisted he had been with a woman that night and would not divulge her identity out of a sense of honor. Whether he had a naïve faith that the American system of justice really did put the burden of proof on the prosecution, or whether in some sense he desired martyrdom, he failed to mount an effective defense. “Like many Wobblies,” Adler writes, “Joe Hill was principled to the point of recklessness.”

Adler holds that Joe Hill chose “apparently came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that he could better serve the union by dying. And later, once it was clear that he would not be getting a new trial, he perhaps came to see his death as necessary, or at the very least as valuable propaganda for advancing the cause of industrial unionism. The cause needed a martyr, someone to incite his fellow workers, to inspire them not to mourn but to organize, and he cast himself in that swaggering role.”

Adler says “The irony of Hill having taken on the role of good soldier in the class war was as inescapable as the penitentiary. For he was on trial for his life for a crime that had nothing to do with politics. Yet his prosecution, baseless as it was, in the end was about nothing but politics: about a partial judge … abetting an ambitious prosecutor to make the case that State of Utah v. Joseph Hillstrom was as much a class action against the IWW as it was a murder trial.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Utah was the first state to resume executions after capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977.” It is also the only state that has used a firing squad in recent times.

Many more rebels have been jailed on trumped up charges since Joe Hill’s day. And as has become terribly clear, plenty of people have been sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row. How many innocent people are still under sentence of death is impossible to know, but a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates it could be more than 4% of the death row population.

As for Joe Hill, “Death imbued his life with meaning,” Adler concluded. “What, after all, attests more powerfully to a righteous cause than the willingness to die for it?”

On June 27, 1914 Joe Hill was found guilty of the murder of John Morrison. He was killed by a firing squad on November 15, 1915.

Phil Ochs:

Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall
Blindfold over his eyes
It’s the life of a rebel that he chose to live
It’s the death of a rebel that he died.

Ochs may have gotten a few facts wrong, but hey, it’s a folksong, and it worked for me.

The song Joan Baez sang at Woodstock is from a poem written by Alfred Hayes in 1934.  The labor icon appears in a dream.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me

“Joe Hill ain’t never died,

Where workingmen are out on strike,

Joe Hill is at their side.”

Yours for the O.B.U.

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Albert Parsons and August Spies were hung in 1887. Joe Hill was shot by a firing squad in 1915. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted in 1927. Their methods of execution were different, but their “crimes” were common: they were put to death because of their staunch advocacy for the rights of working people to decent wages and working conditions.

The application of the death penalty has always been political – from the Salem Witch trials to New Hampshire’s Attorney General using a death penalty prosecution in her election campaign to yesterday’s verdict by an Egyptian judge that condemned 683 people to death.  (See statement from Amnesty International.)

With International Workers Day, a day that began in honor of Albert Parsons and August Spies, four days away, this is as good a time as any to recall why the cause of labor should be tied to the movement for an end to the death penalty.

Parsons and Spies were leaders of the International WorkingHaymarketRiot-Harpers.jpg People’s Association in Chicago, which was fighting for the eight-hour day. They had already been singled out for condemnation by city leaders, Parsons even threatened with lynching by Chicago businessmen, when they led the planning of a peaceful rally at Haymarket Square on May 1, 1886.

Three days later Parson, Spies, and Sam Fielden, also a member of the Working People’s Association, spoke at another rally, peaceful as well until it was rushed by club-wielding police and then shattered by an explosion.

Eleven people, including seven police officers, died. No one knew who had brought or thrown the bomb, but Spies and Parsons – who was with his wife and two children at a nearby saloon when the bomb went off – were immediately blamed.

In the words of Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, authors of Labor’s Untold Story, “the nation’s press was a unit in declaring that it made no difference whether Parson, Spies, or Fielden had or had not thrown the bomb. They should be hanged for their political views, for their words and general activities and if more trouble makers were given to the hangman so much the better.” The Chicago Tribune, for example, said the labor leaders should be “held, tried and hanged for murder.”

And that’s exactly what happened, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the bombing or the deaths of the police officers. “The trial was conducted with all the sensation histrionics, all the stage properties which so often transform American legal proceedings into lurid public spectacles,” according to Boyer and Morais, who added, “the verdict was almost a formality.”

This May Day, let’s remember Albert Parsons and August Spies and pledge to end the government’s option to execute those it decides are its enemies.

[Thanks to Wikipedia.org for graphics.]

The last words of Albert Spies

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Bus segregation was not the first issue that grabbed the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the young pastor moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. His first campaign in his new home focused on a sentence of death for Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black boy convicted of raping a white woman, which512px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_6-wikicommons became his first civil rights campaign in his new home. Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community. King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life.

So did Claudette Colvin, like Reeves a student at Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin, who the next year would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing, recalled, “Jeremiah Reeves’s arrest was the turning point of my life. That was when I and a lot of other students really started thinking about prejudice and racism. I was furious when I found out what had happened.” [1]

“In the years that [Reeves] sat in jail,” Dr. King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his book about the Montgomery movement, “several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the Grand Jury; none was ever brought to trial.” [2]

Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958.

A week later King addressed a “Prayer Pilgrimage” rally in front of the State Capitol building. “The issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves,” King told a crowd of two thousand. “Even if he were guilty, it is the severity ad inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.”[3]

Such gerrymandered justice was a well established fact of life in the South, going back to the days of slavery when blacks were commonly executed or lynched for crimes that drew less harsh punishment — or none — when committed by whites. This discriminatory pattern continued after emancipation, as Stuart Banner documents in his book, The Death Penalty: An American History. “In the first half of the [twentieth] century,” he writes, “the southern states punished many crimes by death only if they were committed by blacks, in the second half of LR&Mark11-14-12 019the century they accomplished the same result by delegating to all-white juries the discretion to choose capital or noncapital punishment.”

“The death penalty was a means of racial control,” observes Banner, a UCLA law professor.

Sadly, the role played by race in decisions about the death penalty persists. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time.”

New Hampshire is a case in point.

Michael Addison was charged with capital murder for killing Michael Briggs, a police officer, in 2006.

John Brooks was charged with capital murder for hiring three men to assist him in killing Jack Reid, a handyman, in 2005.

The trials took place in adjacent counties in 2008.

Addison, a poor black man with a prior criminal record, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty but spared the death penalty.

Monica Foster, Brooks’ attorney, said of her client after the sentence was announced, “He’s not the kind of people juries routinely kill,”

Racial disparities in the use of the death penalty have been a focus of scholarly research for decades. According to Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, authors of a 2013 study, “The most consistent and robust finding in this literature is that even after controlling for dozens and sometimes hundreds of case-related variables, Americans who murder Whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murder Blacks.” They note as well that “Black defendants are sentenced to death more frequently than White defendants, especially when the universe of studied cases is narrowed to include only those cases that result in aexecutejustice11-14-12 capital trial.”

What Levinson, Smith, and Young found ought to be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the fairness of our judicial system. After studying 445 jury-eligible citizens in six states where the death penalty is most actively used, they concluded that “implicit racial bias does have an impact on the administration of the death penalty in America.”

“We found that death-qualified jurors implicitly valued White lives over Black lives by more rapidly associating White subjects with the concepts of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ and Black subjects with the concepts of ‘worthless’ or ‘expendable.’ This finding could potentially help to explain why real capital juries impose death sentences more regularly for White victims: at least at an implicit level we value White lives more than Black lives, and thus, perhaps, we seek to punish those individuals who have destroyed those whom we value most.”

The implications of this finding go far beyond the death penalty.

As for Dr. King, it is worth noting that his comments on the prosecution, conviction, and execution of Jeremiah Reeves did not directly reject capital punishment, just “the unequal justice of Southern courts.” As King matured into the leader we honor today, his critique of injustice deepened and blended with a prescription for change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he famously said.

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence,” King told the world on the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

The realization of King’s vision is far off. Abolition of the death penalty would be an excellent step in the right direction.

To get involved, join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


[1] Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009, p. 23-24

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves,” April 6, 1958

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Today the government of Iran executed 16 so-called “rebels” by hanging, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of 14 guards at the Pakistani border.  Barbaric, isn’t it?

Hanging is still a permitted method of execution in the State of New Hampshire, too.  Sound barbaric?  Think all forms of state-sponsored execution are barbaric?

If you said “yes,” then it’s time to join a growing campaign to wipe the death penalty off New Hampshire’s law books for good.  The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty publicly launched its “Road to Repeal” this month with a statewide speaking tour by Kirk Bloodsworth and a State House news conference.  The news conference drew religious leaders, former police officers, lawmakers from both major parties, and the judge who presided over the state’s homicide trials during his tenure as Chief Justice of the state’s Superior Court system. 

Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row based on DNA evidence that another man was responsible for the crime which nearly sent the ex-Marine to the gas chamber, delivered lectures at UNH Durham, Keene State College, ad Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.  He also met with hampton 10-11-13 003 reporters and lawmakers, many of whom said they were moved by his story of surviving death row. 

Bloodsworth was arrested in 1984 and charged with the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.  He always maintained his innocence, but it was not until he read a book about the use of DNA to capture killers in England that he found a way to free himself after more than 8 years behind bars.  “What happened to me could happen to anybody,” he told everyone he spoke to.  Bloodsworth noted that of the 144 people exonerated from death row in recent , only 18 have used DNA evidence.  “How many more innocent people do we have in prison?” he asked. 

Regardless of guilt, though, Bloodsworth said “you can’t kill a person to say killing is wrong.”  That’s a sentiment that has the approval of Bishop Rob Hirschfeld of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and Bishop Peter Libasci of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, both of whom spoke to reporters, lawmakers, and repeal advocates in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building on October 24. 

“The death penalty neither deters others nor brings the perpetrator to

road-to-repeal understanding but validates the taking of a human life,” the Catholic leader said.  Bishop Hirschfeld called on everyone to “refuse to be contaminated by the sin of violence” and to resist the temptation to demand retribution for horrible crimes.

Ray Dodge, who served as Chief of Police for the Town of Marlborough, said “mistakes are inevitable” in our criminal justice system, no matter how skilled, experienced, and well-intentioned are the officers and prosecutors charged with bringing perpetrators to justice.  

Following the former chief, former Chief Justice Walter Murphy delivered a lengthy speech, drawing on his years in court and his more recent experience as Chair of a legislatively created commission to study the state’s death penalty.  “There is not one whit of evidence that the death penalty deters crime,” he said, and certainly no more deterrent effect than the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, which is the statutorily mandated sentence for first degree murder. 

Murphy noted that the case of Michael Addison, convicted in 2008 for the 2006 slaying of Michael Briggs, has already cost the state more than $5 million “and I’m told it will be double that by the time they finish the appeals.”  Those funds press conf 1-24-13 could easily be put to better use, he said. 

Rep. Renny Cushing, the repeal bill’s prime sponsor, said this is a “moment in history,” pointing out the fact that the 2012 gubernatorial election featured two major party candidates who opposed the death penalty.  Governor Maggie Hassan, who prevailed at the ballot box in 2012, has indicated she opposes the death penalty on moral grounds and would sign a repeal bill as long as it does not undo the Addison sentence. 

The repeal bill is the first on the list of nearly 700 bills already filed for the 2014 legislative session.  Joining Cushing as legislative co-sponsors are an impressively diverse array of lawmakers, including liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, pro-choice and right-to-lifers, leading “free staters,” and three Representatives who lost their fathers to homicide.  Passage will require their hard labor, but also the work of citizens who agree it’s time for the death penalty to be repealed.  The best way to get on the road to repeal is to join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

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New Hampshire hasn’t executed anyone since 1939, but since Michael Addison was sentenced to death for the 2006 murder of Michael Briggs, there’s been a man on death row at the state prison in Concord.  Except “we don’t really have a death row,” William Wrenn, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Corrections said this afternoon at a death penalty forum held at the UNH School of Law in Concord.  2-13-13 009

Neither does the state have a death chamber or anyone with experience conducting executions, Wrenn said.

Several years ago the Department of Corrections solicited a design for an execution chamber and found out it would cost about $1.8 Million to build one.  So Wrenn doesn’t think he’d ever get authority to construct such a facility.  Instead, the state would convert a gymnasium or some other space to be a temporary execution facility, at least if it could be done without creating a problem for the rest of the prison.  

Wrenn was joined on the panel by former Phil McLaughlin, who supported the death penalty during his term as Attorney General but who now supports its repeal.  Other speakers were Chris Keating of the NH Judicial Council and Tina Nadeau, Chief Justice of the NH Superior Court. 

A second panel included Representative Renny Cushing, who also heads a national anti-death penalty group made up of relatives of homicide victims; Tim Anderson, who served as a jury member on a capital murder case in Connecticut and later became a repeal advocate; and David Rothstein, Deputy Chief Appellate Defender, who also heads up Michael Addison’s legal appeal.

The procedures to be used for an execution are spelled out in RSA 630:5, which says:

“The punishment of death shall be inflicted by continuous, intravenous administration of a lethal quantity of an ultrashort-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent until death is pronounced by a licensed physician according to accepted standards of medical practice.”

It’s the Commissioner’s job to determine what mix of chemicals would be used to perform the killing, though the law also states that “if for any reason the commissioner finds it to be impractical to carry out the punishment of death by administration of the required lethal substance or substances, the sentence of death may be carried out by hanging.”

The law also gives the Commissioner the authority to determine who will perform the execution and spells out that “the person administering the injection need not be a physician, registered nurse, or licensed practical nurse, licensed or registered under the laws of this or any other state.”  No prescription for the drugs would be required. 

If he can’t find anyone in New Hampshire qualified – or willing – to do the job, he said, there are people in other states who could be hired.  “Their names and identifiers are kept very confidential,” he said.

Chris Keating headed the Public Defender program during the time of the Addison trial.  He pointed out that the agency conducts about 27,000 cases a year for a budget of about $18 Million.  The Addison case alone has cost the agency about $3 Million so far, he said.  And the tab is still running with an appeal process only just getting underway.  Fiscal realities certainly could figure in legislative judgment about whether the state should repeal the death penalty before another case gets launched.

Tim Anderson had to be “death qualified” in order to be admitted onto the jury for a 2-13-13 027 capital murder case following a horrific home invasion/murder in Connecticut.  In other words, he had to say he was willing to vote for execution if he felt the facts of the case warranted it.  Despite reservations, he ultimately joined the other jurors in a decision to hand out a death sentence in the case.  Now he believes the death penalty is “barbaric: and “corrosive.” 

“What I did was morally and ethically wrong,” Anderson said.  He hopes to speak in other death penalty states to “make sure that no juror has to do what I did.”

New Hampshire’s legislature will take up death penalty repeal next year, and Rep. Cushing is optimistic it will pass.  But meanwhile, William Wrenn  is working with the Attorney General’s office to determine the protocols the state would follow as the Addison case proceeds and what he would have to do “if and when I’m called upon to carry out the sentence.”  Given the length of the appeals process, he won’t be the Commissioner any more by then. 

The forum was put on by Law Students for Human Rights, the Diversity Action Coalition, and the UNH Law School chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

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NH Supremes Hear Addison Appeal

The New Hampshire Supreme Court building is made of cold granite and cold brick, with a cold, gold dome perched on top.  Some people might say that’s appropriate for a building dedicated to justice.

But today’s hearing on the state’s intent to execute Michael Addison for killing Michael Briggs seemed only abstractly related to “justice.”  Certainly the Court represents “law” and represents “order.”  But “justice?”  vigil@courthouse11-14-12

Inside the Court, lawyers were arguing arcane details of 22 arguments made by defense lawyers.  As one observer noted afterward, it was hard to tell they were discussing whether or not the State of New Hampshire should kill a human being.  The word “execution” was not uttered, she said.

Outside, in the warm sun for most of the day, a band of death penalty abolition activists conducted a vigil to summon forth a form of justice that goes beyond the realm of legal procedure.  About 30 people stood silently outside the Court from 8 to 9 am as participants and observers arrived for the Court hearing.  Another group of more than 40 people, mostly a different crew from those who had been there in the morning, stood vigil from 3 to 4 pm as the Court hearing adjourned. 

Unitarians, Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics, even a person who identified herself  as being from the “Church of Witchcraft,” bore witness to the simple concept that the State should not take life in order to punish the taking of a life. 

Most noteworthy was the presence of John Breckenridge, a former Manchester police officer.  Breckenridge was the partner of Michael BrBreckinridge-interview11-14-12 014iggs and was with him on October 16, 2006 when they pursued two crime suspects through the dark streets of Manchester.  Michael Addison, one of the suspects, turned and shot Officer Briggs as he ran.  Briggs died from the gunshot wounds in the hospital.  Addison was soon caught and charged with capital murder, a crime for which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.  

Arriving shortly after the vigil’s start this morning, Breckenridge quietly took his place and stood silently facing the Court.  Although he did not seek publicity, reporters from WMUR-TV recognized him.  Speaking in a calm and straightforward tone, Breckenridge told them he is against the death penalty as a matter of his religious faith.   The story aired on the noon news.

New Hampshire’s death penalty could have been repealed years ago had it notexecutejustice11-14-12 been for the power of the police lobby.  With John Breckenridge joining the public ranks of death penalty opponents, the balance may have tipped.

Today’s vigils were organized by the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. As the sun went down, participants lit candles and continued their silent witness, knowing their presence outside the Court was just one step toward abolition.


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Rep. Phil Greazzo (R-Manchester), is the sole sponsor of HB 162, a bill that would give New Hampshire the nation’s most expansive death penalty by making all “purposeful” homicides eligible to be charged as “capital murder.”   The legislator’s stated objection to the status quo is that only some murderers can be executed under the state’s relatively narrow law.  He says, “If we have the death penalty, it should apply equally to death penatly - rick perry 10-28-11 002everyone or it should apply equally to no one.”

Now, he is giving legislators that choice.  Rep. Greazzo plans to introduce an amendment to his own bill that would repeal the death penalty entirely.    (You can see the text of his amendment by looking at the latest House Calendar and scrolling down through the list of “retained bills” scheduled for votes and past the “Member’s Notices” to the text of amendments.)

The debate over HB 162 is now scheduled for Wednesday, January 4. 

Representatives will get to vote on repeal first.  If the repeal amendment passes, the Senate will get a bill that would eliminate the state’s death penalty.  Such a bill passed both houses in 2000, but was vetoed by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.  

If Greazzo’s repeal amendment fails, the bill as written will come up for a vote, barring other surprises. 

As I’ve said before,  if we don’t like the notion that the state’s limited death penalty gives the impression that some homicide victims are more important than others, the road to equal treatment is through getting rid of capital punishment altogether.

Rather than making the death penalty more fair, the expanded death penalty as proposed in HB 162 would expand all of its problems: massive expense, discrimination based on race and class, prosecutorial misconduct, and the potential for convicting innocent people.  An expanded death penalty would mean more victims’ family members would be dragged through years of hearings that will not bring back their loved ones.  An expanded death penalty means more family members of convicted murderers would join the list of victims.  

The Death Penalty Information Center’s end-of-the-year report showed that the actual use of the death penalty is losing favor in other states.  New Hampshire should get on board with this trend, not take it in the opposite direction. 

As the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says, “there’s no such thing as a fair death penalty.”  That’s why repeal is the only just option.  

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