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The pros and cons of NH's death penalty

News Date

By Charles Putnam, Co-Director Justiceworks UNH, and Barbara Keshen, New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union

This article has been updated by Citizens Count Editors. For up-to-date information on New Hampshire's death penalty, visit our issue page.

Under New Hampshire's capital punishment law, the death penalty can be sought in cases involving the murder of police and court officers, judges, murders for hire, and/or murders connected to drug deals, rape, kidnapping and home invasions.

Lethal injection is the primary form of execution. The last execution (by hanging) was carried out in 1939. Michael Addison, convicted in 2008 of killing a Manchester police officer, is the state's sole death row inmate.

Recent history

Early in 2010, the state legislature created a 22-person committee to review the state's death penalty statute. The purpose of the commission was to consider a variety of public policy issues related to the death penalty, including the cost to execute a criminal versus the cost to sentence them to life in prison without parole.

It's been determined the state will spend nearly $3 million to prosecute, defend (he was ruled indigent and received a court-appointed lawyer) and sentence Michael Addison. The cost will increase by approximately $400,000 per year while Addison appeals his conviction.

In late November 2010, the commission voted 12-10 in favor of keeping the capital punishment law. The majority ruled:

  • Capital punishment serves several important and legitimate social interests, including instilling confidence in the criminal justice system and acting as a deterrent.
  • The death penalty is consistent with evolving standards of societal decency.
  • As used in New Hampshire, capital punishment is not applied in an arbitrary, unfair, or discriminatory manner.
  • No alternative to the death penalty is sufficient to address legitimate social or penal interests for the narrow categories of capital murder for which the death penalty may be imposed in New Hampshire.
  • While the costs of pursuing the death penalty exceed the expenses in a typical first degree murder case, the death penalty is pursued sparingly in this state and those costs are necessary to provide both a high quality of prosecution and a vigorous defense.

Click here to read the entire report

The death penalty was expanded in June 2011 to include murders connected to home invasion. The law was spurred by the murder of Kimberly Cates in Mont Vernon. 

Gov. Lynch issued the following statement upon signing the law:

"I believe strongly that there are some crimes so heinous that the death penalty is warranted. As a state, we've used our death penalty statute judiciously and cautiously, as is appropriate. But there are some horrific crimes that are not currently covered under our capital murder statute. That is why I today signed legislation to include home invasions in our capital murder statute."

In 2018, a repeal of the state's death penalty statute was passed by the Legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu. The Legislature tried but failed to override the veto. 

Pros and Cons

"New Hampshire should keep the death penalty."

By Charles Putnam

  • The punishment must fit the crime. Some murders, like the intentional murder of a rape victim, are so depraved that capital punishment is the only proportional sentence available. The New Hampshire Constitution itself recognizes that punishment must be proportional to the offense (Pt. I, Art. 18). The New Hampshire Supreme Court has recognized that in order for the public to have confidence in the criminal justice system, there must be a belief that the punishment fits the crime.
  • It serves as a deterrant. There is a respected body of scholarly evidence that capital punishment helps reduce homicide on a national level and there is good anecdotal evidence that some of the worst offenders, like persons already serving life sentences, consider the availability of the death penalty. The capital murder statute also protects police and correctional officers. Its repeal would remove an important protection for the men and women who do very important jobs and are expected to expose themselves to dangerous, potentially deadly situations as a normal part of their work, but it would also send an unfortunate message about our state's willingness to defend the rule of law.
  • New Hampshire has never had a wrongful murder conviction. The opponents of New Hampshire's capital murder statute argue that procedural errors in other states demonstrate that the statute is too erratic to remain on the books. They make this claim despite the fact that, to my knowledge, New Hampshire has one of the narrowest capital murder statutes in the country and never experienced a wrongful murder conviction that was sustained after the first appeal, much less had a death sentence thrown out by a court based on a finding of actual innocence or even a capital murder case where a prosecutor committed a procedural error like wrongly withholding evidence.
  • Cost is not a factor. With respect to their cost, it is important to remember that capital murder cases arise infrequently in New Hampshire and are a relatively small proportion of the total resources expended on law enforcement, courts and indigent defense in any given year. It is unfair to add up the total cost of a case or two over many years, because it paints a distorted picture of the relative amount of resources devoted to the few cases that have arisen in New Hampshire. More importantly, there are many things—like providing a robust system of indigent defense—that society undertakes despite the economic cost, because justice requires them to be done.

The views expressed here are the personal opinions of Attorney Putnam and do not represent the views of Justiceworks or the University of New Hampshire.

"New Hampshire should not keep the death penalty."

By Barbara Keshen

  • It is morally wrong. Faith leaders from many denominations have united in their opposition to the death penalty. Many believe the death penalty does not affirm the sacredness of human life, demeans the value of life, promotes violence, and does not promote spiritual healing and well-being of victims. 
  • The death penalty does not deter crime. A survey of experts from the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association found that 88% of the nation's top criminologists believe the death penalty is not a deterrent. In a 1995 Hart Research Associates Poll of police chiefs, the chiefs ranked the death penalty as the least effective tool in deterring crime.
  • The Criminal Justice System is not infallible, and as long as states impose the death penalty innocent people will be put to death. Since the U.S. reinstituted the death penalty in 1973, 139 wrongly convicted people have been released from death row.
  • The death penalty costs significantly more than a life without parole sentence, in some estimates about 10 times the amount. This is because of the heightened process that the death penalty requires. The average length of time from a sentence of death to an execution is 13 years. During that time the taxpayer is footing the expense of the appeals, both by the state and by the defense, since virtually all inmates on death row are indigent.
  • The death penalty ignores the real needs of victims. Seeking the death penalty diverts millions of dollars of our scarce resources that could otherwise go into providing critical services to the family of homicide victims.



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