By Max Sullivan
Posted Mar 10, 2019 at 4:01 AM
HAMPTON -- On state Rep. Renny Cushing’s living room wall is a picture of him and his father, who was fatally shot in the chest during a home invasion in 1988.
Cushing, a Hampton Democrat who was a state representative when his father was killed, has since advocated for the death penalty’s repeal in New Hampshire, having said a “ritual killing” by the state does not bring back loved ones who have been murdered. The House’s passage of a death penalty repeal bill Thursday leaves him optimistic the Legislature will be able to override a veto by Gov. Chris Sununu, who vetoed a similar repeal bill in the last session.
“I think there’s a strong possibility,” said Cushing, who is recognized nationally as a leading voice against the death penalty.
The bill passed the House by a vote of 279-88, more than the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override. Sununu said in a statement this week he intends to veto the bill.
While Cushing is hopeful, he said it still never easy to tell if the votes are there until they are cast. He said the death penalty is not a party issue, as he knows many Republicans oppose the death penalty while then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, vetoed a repeal bill when she was in the corner office.
Death penalty repeal bills have come before the Legislature in each session for the last two decades, but only sent to the governor’s desk twice before.
“I’m pretty cautious,” Cushing said. “I’ve had the votes before to pass stuff and it hasn’t always worked out, right up to the minute the votes are cast.”
New Hampshire’s capital punishment law applies in only seven scenarios: the killing of an on-duty law enforcement officer or judge, murder for hire, murder during a rape, certain drug offenses or home invasion and murder by someone already serving a life sentence without parole.
Thursday’s vote followed a floor debate when both Democrats and Republicans spoke in favor of the bill.
Rep. David Danielson, R-Bedford, said he was a proponent of the death penalty until about another Republican lawmaker asked him how he could be both pro-life and support capital punishment. Danielson said he took about two weeks to think and pray on the issue before concluding he could not.
“I came to the conclusion I could not reconcile those two positions,” Danielson said. “I could not say I was pro-life on one hand and not the other.”
Rep. Safiya Wazir, D-Concord, a refugee from Afghanistan who is now an American citizen, said she escaped her home country because the violence of its leaders against its own people, inspiring her opposition to the death penalty. She also argued New Hampshire has not held an execution in 80 years, demonstrating New Hampshire has and can live without capital punishment.
“We have such an amazing motto, ‘Live Free or Die,’” Wazir said. “Let’s put the emphasis on living. Now is the time to end this terrible punishment in favor of life without parole.”
Rep. Jeanine Notter, R-Merrimack, argued the last 80 years demonstrated the death penalty in New Hampshire has been an effective law since it has been needed so little. She asked House members to kill the repeal bill, saying a life sentence is not adequate punishment for crimes like the 2011 Mont Vernon home invasion, when two teens murdered Kimberly Cates and nearly killed her 11-year-old daughter Jamie.
Notter said she has been a personal friend of the Cates family since before the murder and helped pass law that added home invasions to the list of murder scenarios that qualify for capital punishment.
She recounted details of the attack before the House, including how Cates was alive for most of the attack as she was stabbed 36 times, She talked about how her maimed daughter crawled through the house to tell a 911 operator, “they killed my mommy” before passing out.
She pleaded with the killers, saying, ‘You don’t have to do this,’ but they hacked away,” Notter said. “I believe life in prison is not justice for a heinous crime such as this.”
Cushing said the murder was heinous but he believes capital punishment creates a hierarchy of killings unfair to victims of crimes that do not qualify for the death penalty. He pointed out much of the approximately $5 million spent on the incarceration of Michael K. Addison, who is on death row for the 2006 murder of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, could be spent on closing the cases of the 128 unsolved murders in New Hampshire.
He also said he found Notter’s remarks dismissive of those who have lost loved ones to murder who oppose the death penalty, saying she does not speak from the same experience victims do.
“Somehow because we don’t support the death penalty, there’s almost an implication that we really don’t love our family members,” said Cushing, whose brother-in-law was also murdered. “I don’t think she understands anything personally about the healing process and aftermath.”
Cushing said he has always opposed the death penalty but was not heavily conscious of the debate over capital punishment until after his father’s death. He said he realized people would assume he supported the death penalty when a friend of his walked up to him shortly after his father’s killer was convicted and told him, “I hope they fry the bastard so you and your family and mother can get some peace.”
“What I came to realize is that (capital punishment) would only compound the family tragedy,” Cushing said. “Not only would my father be dead, but so too the values he instilled in me.”