Monday, September 20, 2010

No more death

From Friday's Keene (NH) Sentinel, "Punishment debated: State death penalty commission hears from public":

A retired police chief, an ex-convict and the mother of a murder victim all came together Thursday to speak against capital punishment at a public hearing at Keene State College.

The forum — one of several to be held around the state — was sponsored by the N.H. Commission to Study the Death Penalty, a group appointed by the Legislature to review the fairness and efficacy of New Hampshire’s death-penalty law.

The 22-member commission is made up of representatives of groups with an interest in the issue, including lawyers, politicians and law enforcement professionals, as well as others who have had professional or personal experience with murder.

Bradley R. Whitney, whose father, Robert “Eli” Whitney, was strangled to death by Gary Lee Sampson in Meredith in 2001, is a member of the commission. He said the hearing had a good turnout — more than 100 people attended.

“People came and spoke their mind,” he said. “I don’t think anybody held back.”

There were a few tears but no raised voices, and most speakers stuck to the topic throughout the two-hour forum.

About 30 people addressed the commission. Of those, only three said they support the practice of capital punishment in some cases.

People who wanted to share their views without speaking publicly had the option of writing their comments on a sheet that circulated around the room.

Margaret Hawthorn, whose daughter Molly Hawthorn-MacDougall was murdered in Henniker in April, was one of the many speakers who told the commission the N.H. death penalty should be repealed.

While MacDougall’s accused killer is not facing the death penalty, Hawthorn said she wouldn’t want him put to death.

“The best possible outcome for me would be for there to be no more death,” she said. “One was enough.”

There were several arguments voiced by many of the death-penalty opponents.

Some appealed to Christian teachings of forgiveness and salvation. Others pointed to statistics that show that poor, non-white criminals are more likely than their affluent, white peers to be sentenced to death. And several expressed their belief that premeditated killing is always wrong — whether the killer is an individual or the state.

But others said that there are extreme circumstances, and that the option of the death sentence shouldn’t be taken off the table entirely.

“I believe the death penalty is right in some cases,” Keene High School student Celeste Thibault told the commission.

But Mark A. Edgington, who served nine years in a Florida prison on a charge of second-degree murder, said his time in prison changed him from a death-penalty supporter to an opponent.

He said his experience had shown him one common argument in favor of retaining the death penalty — that it would deter others from committing crimes — was not valid.

“Having spent nine years in prison, let me tell you, those men don’t care about your deterrents,” he said.

Former Marlborough police chief Raymond T. Dodge echoed Edgington’s point.

He said his experience in law enforcement had shown him that people who commit crimes don’t weight the pros and cons beforehand.

“Criminals don’t do that,” he said. “They just react.”

Dodge also told the commission the danger of a wrongful conviction wasn’t worth the risk.

“We can release an innocent person from jail,” he said. “We cannot release an innocent person from the grave.”

The commission is scheduled to present the final draft of its report to the Legislature on Dec. 1.

In March 2009, the N.H. House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Steven Lindsey, D-Keene, that would have repealed the state’s death penalty, but the bill stalled in the Senate.

The last person to be executed in New Hampshire was put to death in 1939, but the practice is still legal in the state.

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