On the day the New Hampshire’s Death Penalty Study Commission released its reports, in which a narrow majority of members called for retaining the state’s death penalty, a group of faith-based activists met in the office of the NH Council of Churches to discuss ways to deepen the movement for death penalty repeal. 

While the 22-member commission split 12 to 10 on the question of retention or repeal, there was no call for capital punishment to be expanded and widespread agreement that the death penalty costs significantly more than alternatives.

Expansion of the death penalty will be on the State Legislature’s agenda for the new session beginning after the first of the year. 

“Testimony before the Commission demonstrated that, whether one supported or opposed capital punishment in theory, the reality of the death penalty system in practice is it just doesn’t work,” wrote Rep. Renny Cushing, a member of the Commission and Executive Director of Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.  “It doesn’t make the public or police safer, it is prone to mistakes that snare innocent people, and it is not a good use of scarce public resources.  And rather than being some kind of a balm for the pain for murder victims family members, it is both a perception and a reality that the death penalty is a distraction from meeting the overall needs of survivors of homicide victims.”

In addition, Commission members from both camps agreed the death penalty costs significantly more than the alternative of life imprisonment.  According to testimony, the state of New Hampshire has already spent $4 million to prosecute 2 recent capital cases, not counting appellate, defense or ancillary costs.

The commission was unable to agree on any other questions posed by the legislature despite a majority of witnesses testifying in support of repealing the death penalty. Over the course of 10 months 146 people testified to the commission: 127 New Hampshire residents representing families of homicide victims, former judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and scholars testified to the commission.

Additionally, the commission heard from 19 out of state witnesses with direct experience implementing the death penalty, including 2 former prison wardens who provided testimony about the impact death penalty on corrections staff, state prosecutors, and death row exonerees.  “Across the board, their testimony detailed the vast failures and challenges inherent to implementation of the death penalty for example; its failure to serve the needs of murder victims family members, the moving target of fairness, and extraordinary political pressures places on public servants,” commented Katherine Cooper, Executive Director of the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  

Coalition members are disappointed the study commission ignored so much evidence put before them, but are unflagging in their efforts to defeat expansion and win eventual repeal.  And the six New Hampshire residents who attended a recent national conference of faith-based activists in Atlanta are making plans to equip clergy to preach, educators to teach, and laity to form their consciences by faith.

“States that have successfully repealed the death penalty have done so because a broad cross section of the state examined the repeal not a s a matter of economics, or deterrence, or vengeance but as a matter of faithfully formed consciences,” said David Lamarre-Vincent of the NH Council of Churches, who noted that New Hampshire had one of the largest state delegations there. 

Other New Hampshire residents who were at the Kairos Conference included Margaret Hawthorne, a member of Monadnock Friends Meeting, Carol Stamatakis, who is active in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Revs. Gordon Crouch and Marla Bailey of the United Church of Christ.  

The 424 members of the New Hampshire and Senate were sworn in yesterday.   Brother Paul Crawford, director of public policy for the Diocese of Manchester, says he is already working to make contact with newly elected Catholic legislators to make sure they understand their faith tradition is deeply opposed to capital punishment.  

For more information, contact the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.