New conservative voices crucial in New Hampshire repeal campaign
Renny Cushing’s own father was murderd in 1988 and he is the executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, a long-standing World Coalition member organization. Now a member of his State’s legislature, he is the prime sponsor of the bill on “repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire” introduced last year.
Worldcoalition.org: What is the current status of the bill in the legislative process?
We first had a public hearing in January, which was incredibly well attended: 160 witnesses came forward, most of whom did not have time to speak. They included families of murder victims, two former State attorneys general who had previously supported the death penalty, law enforcement officials – a lot of people who have changed their position on this issue.
Two weeks ago, the House’s Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee voted 14-3 in favour of the bill. This included the Democratic Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff, a former US Marshall who used to support the death penalty, and the chair of the committee, Laura Pantelakos. She is the oldest serving member of the house and has always supported capital punishment, but her son, a police officer, was killed on the job three years ago. When she saw that a white man convicted of murdering a policeman was sent to prison for life while a black man in a similar case received the death penalty, she realised there was no racial fairness in the system. She has now voted in favour of the repeal.
The majority of committee members in both main parties supported the bill (8-1 among Democrats and 6-2 among Republicans). This reflects the most broadly-based sponsorship of a repeal bill has ever had in the US: the 71 sponsors include three family members of murder victims, a member of the Tea Party, gun rights advocates, a former judge who chairs the Republican minority…
What are the next steps for this bill?
The vote on the floor of the House of Representatives is tentatively scheduled for 12 March. I’m saying this carefully but I’m pretty confident that we will have the votes. Then we will move to the Senate, with the same process: a public hearing, a vote in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and a plenary vote. Some senators who sponsored the bill are on the Committee.
[14 March 2014 update: The House passed the bill on 12 March. The bill is now moving to the senate.]
While the New Hampshire House has a Democratic majority, the Senate is dominated by Republicans. How are you working to prepare them for the vote?
There are conversations with senators taking place now. We’re trying to understand their concerns. Some are worried that we might let criminals get out of jail, and the default penalty of life without parole is an answer to that concern. The opposition to the repeal used to be in the law enforcement community, but so many of its members are moving in our direction that this is changing. Murder victims’ family members speaking in favour of the repeal have also had a strong impact. All those who changed their position mentioned that to me. Cost is also an issue, at a time when we have so little money for victims service. Around 120 murder cases remain unsolved! This is a way of having a conversation about what victims really need, as opposed to ritual killing.
Is there a grassroots movement to support your efforts?
The New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has been organising citizens to speak against capital punishment and contact their representatives. There is a constant schedule of public events. Faith communities have mobilised across the state, there is a sense of momentum building around public education. The death penalty is now a topic of conversation and the more people hear about it, the less they like it. Cases of innocence, for example, move people deeply.
The World Coalition is holding its next Steering Committee meeting in New Hampshire in April, with abolitionists from across the world gathering in the State capital Concord. How can the global abolitionist movement help you?
We will try to make people here realise that this is not only about the State of New Hampshire. We’re not talking about building a bridge: this is the vote of a lifetime, for an important historic policy. The first call on the legislature to repeal the death penalty was from the “anti-gallows movement” in 1834. This is the end run. I think the World Coalition visit will help in the background, as a reminder that human rights do not stop at the borders of our State. And anybody around the world who knows someone in New Hampshire: contact them about the repeal!
Yet it seems that your campaign has a lot to do with convincing people on the conservative side of politics – could undue pressure from traditional abolitionists, such as Europeans or liberals, undermine your cause?
This debate must be respectful, and sometimes you need to give people space to change their mind. They may feel they cannot do so if you disagree with their own social agenda. For us, it has been a process of listening, and we have formed the most unlikely alliance of opponents to the death penalty: pro-life Catholics with pro-choice groups, opponents of gun control with gun safety advocates, fiscal conservatives who reject the death penalty as a failed policy costing taxpayers’ money… Conservative voices have been very important. There is a libertarian discourse here that says: we don’t trust the government with taking too much in tax or taking away our guns – why would we trust them with killing people?
Defence attorneys and academics put people to sleep – not because what they say is not interesting, but when a former attorney general who sought the death penalty in hundreds of cases and asked for its extension in the legislature change their mind, this is the real thing.
New Hampshire is a “purple State” – divided between Democrats and Republicans – and this is the first completely bi-partisan repeal legislation in terms of prime sponsors. It was a conscious decision and I think it can be replicated elsewhere.