Sununu’s endorsement of death penalty wrong

  • L. Phillips Runyon File photo—

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 10:48AM

Governor Chris Sununu recently vetoed Senate Bill 593, the bill the Senate passed to repeal the death penalty here in New Hampshire. Here’s why I think he was wrong.

I’ll start with a rhetorical question: Why in this day and age, when the death penalty has seen its demise in every other New England state and in every other country that we care about, would we cling to it here in New Hampshire?

The two primary arguments always advanced are (1) that fear of being executed deters murder and other capital offenses, and (2) that some crimes are just so heinous that we owe it to the victims’ families to impose the ultimate retribution.

Let’s take deterrence first. Even though I never had to decide whether to impose the death penalty in Circuit Court, during my 27 years there I learned a lot about how the criminal mind works. And what I learned is that criminals don’t give even a moment’s thought to the eventual consequences of their actions.

In the first place, most violent crimes don’t occur with any forethought at all – they happen in the heat of a moment, in the midst of an argument, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or all of the above. In the second place, if a murder really is premeditated, the criminal doesn’t think he’ll be caught or he wouldn’t commit the crime to begin with.

So that’s basic psychology 101 as I’ve seen it played out hundreds of times. But in New Hampshire, the psychology is further exaggerated. In the history of New Hampshire since 1734, there have been 24 executions. That’s 24 executions in 284 years. And there’s been no execution here since 1939 – that’s 79 years. If you were a criminal who actually weighed the pros and cons, and if you took the time to consider those statistics before murdering a police officer or judge, would they really deter you from committing the offense?

Now let’s look at the death penalty’s deterrence in broader terms. The states without the death penalty have murder rates that are 25 percent lower than those who still execute people. Likewise, of the 10 states with the highest murder rates in the country, eight of them still have the death penalty and use it – often quite a lot. New Hampshire, on the other hand – which hasn’t executed anyone in 79 years – has the lowest murder rate in the country, year in and out.

And why is that? There could be lots of reasons, but it’s certainly not because of the fear of being executed. I submit it’s because we have a well-educated, peace-loving, law-abiding population - and because we have highly-trained, well-respected local law enforcement officers whom we know personally and who treat us with respect in return.

The bottom line is that we just don’t need the death penalty as a weapon of law enforcement here, and abolishing it would have nothing to do with respecting and supporting our officers.

Okay, but what about those situations where the very worst happens no matter what we do to avoid it? Shouldn’t those killers be made to pay the ultimate price, and isn’t it disrespecting the victims’ families otherwise?

I submit that’s not the case at all. Executing a murderer is letting him off the hook. Having a convicted murderer know that he’s going to sit in a cell for the rest of his life, without any hope of release, and have to think every single day about what he’s done to his victim’s family, his own family, and himself is a much more worthy and effective penalty. And it’s likely to have more deterrence value, too.

Furthermore, if we’re concerned about a victim’s family, wouldn’t it be more humane to them to have a murderer likely plead guilty, as often happens when a death sentence is off the table, without the need for a long and stressful trial, without the risk of a technicality preventing even a conviction, without more than 10 to 20 years of appeals in most cases, without the fear of the conviction being overturned, and without perhaps having to endure yet another trial and the aftermath again?

More and more victims’ families are answering yes, yes, yes, especially if they had known at the outset what they’ve come to experience since then.

Let me conclude with this. I know we tend to do things our own way in New Hampshire, without being swayed by what happens anywhere else. But in the family of nations worldwide, every one of our closest relatives has abolished the death penalty and has a lower murder rate than we do – in most cases dramatically lower – and the only places where the death penalty remains in full force are the places where life is cheap and where respect for justice and the law are non-existent: China, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and North Korea. Is that really the company we want to keep? That’s what we’re saying if we don’t enact this bill.

Let’s bring our law into conformity with the rest of our New Hampshire values.

L. Phillips Runyon is a retired judge living in Peterborough.