Supporters, opponents argue over death penalty repeal bill
By HOLLY RAMER
Apr. 04, 2018
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A House committee considering a proposal to repeal New Hampshire's death penalty heard about the murders of children from supporters and opponents of the bill on Wednesday.
The bill before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would change the penalty for capital murder to life in prison without parole. It passed the Senate this month, but Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has said he'll veto it.
Franklin police Chief David Goldstein, representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, described the 1991 murders of a Concord woman and her three young daughters. James Colbert, who initially pleaded insanity but then blamed himself for strangling his wife and smothering the girls, ages 2 1/2 years, 1 1/2 years and 10 weeks, is serving four life sentences.
"I want you to think about that for a second — the terror that 1-and-a-half-year-old had for that very short time as she looked in the eyes of her father as he killed her," Goldstein said.
Goldstein said he opposes repeal even though in a later interview Colbert told him neither he nor his fellow inmates gave any thought to possible punishments when they committed their crimes. He argued the death penalty is necessary for crimes that amount to an assault on the community.
"If we think the death penalty is a deterrent it really is not," he said. "However, we do have a responsibility."
Barbara Keshen, head of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, described the wrongful arrest of a man in the 1997 rape and murder of a Hopkinton girl to argue in favor of repeal. As a public defender, Keshen represented James Buchanan, who was charged with killing Elizabeth Knapp before DNA evidence led to another man. She also spent years as a state prosecutor, and while she praised New Hampshire's legal and law enforcement communities she said mistakes happened every day.
"If you don't believe we are capable of making mistakes you are either hopelessly naive about the criminal justice system or you are dangerously arrogant," she said.
New Hampshire's death penalty applies to a relatively narrow list of crimes, including the murders of police officers, judges or prosecutors or killings during kidnappings, robberies or rape. The state hasn't executed anyone since 1939, though one person is on death row.
The repeal bill wouldn't apply to Michael Addison, who was convicted of murder in the death of Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006, but opponents argued it's possible courts could see it differently. Addison, in his appeals, argued the death sentence was out of line based on similar cases nationwide.
Attorney Chuck Douglas, who helped draft the law, told the committee that the prospective repeal of death penalty laws in other states has led to commutation of death sentences during the appeals process.
Douglas, who said he believes the death penalty should be expanded to include killings related to hate crimes, also argued that the death penalty does serve as a deterrent. He noted that Florida authorities plan to seek the death penalty against Michael Woodbury, who pleaded guilty in the 2007 murders of three men in Conway who was recently accused in the beating death of his cellmate in that state.
"There is no greater deterrent for this man than the ultimate penalty," he said. "He has not been rehabilitated, he has not apologized, he has not learned."
But Margaret Hawthorn, whose daughter Molly MacDougall was shot to death in 2010, told the committee that putting the killer to death would not have helped her heal. She said the best outcome instead would be seeing him do something positive with his life.
"To see him do something constructive would be to give me back a tiny piece of the goodness that lived in my daughter," she said. "There is no promise this will happen, but an execution would guarantee it couldn't."
The last time the House and the Senate voted to repeal the death penalty was 2000, but the bill was vetoed by then Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. More recently, the House passed a bill in 2014, but it died in the Senate, and the Senate deadlocked on a bill in 2016.