Friday, April 16, 2010

Testifying at Deterrence Hearing

MVFHR member Gail Rice traveled from Illinois to testify before members of New Hampshire's Death Penalty Study Commission last week. A story in Saturday's Concord Monitor, titled "On death penalty, researchers differ with the police; at issue: does punishment deter?" refers to Gail's testimony:

There may be reasons for New Hampshire to keep the death penalty, but statistics show deterrence shouldn't be one of them, a criminologist testified yesterday before a legislative group weighing the future of capital punishment here.

"Our research doesn't mean that punishing homicide offenders is a bad idea," said Tom Kovandzic of the University of Texas. "What we are saying is that increasing punishment by having the death penalty doesn't decrease the number of homicides."

Another statistician from Dartmouth College agreed. Police officers, however, did not.

"I think we need to send a message that we are willing to take extreme action for an extreme act," said Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin, representing the state's 10 sheriffs. "I don't know if we will truly ever know if (having the death penalty) is a deterrent factor. But I think it's common sense that it must be for some."

Brad Whitney, a commission member whose father, Robert Whitney of Penacook, was killed in 2001, agreed. How, Whitney asked, do you count the number of capital murders that weren't committed because a criminal was deterred by fear of execution?

Lawmakers created the 20-member death penalty study commission last year after the state tried two death penalty cases, winning a death sentence in one and life without parole in the other. The commission has until later this year to assess several difficult questions, including whether the life without parole is a suitable option; if the state's death penalty law covers the appropriate crimes; and whether it is applied arbitrarily.

Yesterday, the commission's focus was deterrence. Groups against the death penalty, including the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, paid the expenses of some who testified.

John Lamperti, a retired math professor from Dartmouth College, has reviewed the many statistical studies of the death penalty. He said most of those studies have found no evidence the death penalty deterred crime. Nor did those studies show that the existence of death penalty laws make police officers and prison guards safer, Lamperti said.

Although, Lamperti said, quoting one study, officers felt safer in states with a death penalty.

"Even if there is some deterrence, the negatives outweigh it," Lamperti said. "I am convinced it is bad public policy. I am convinced New Hampshire would be better off without it."

Kovandzic did his own study to reach his conclusion that capital punishment does not deter capital crime. He did so, he said, because of the range of outcomes from the other studies. Some said the death penalty caused more crime while another said an execution could save 18 other lives.

"Criminals aren't as rational as some of these statisticians assume," he said.

For the first time since the commission began meeting late last year, several people with contrary views on the death penalty turned out yesterday. They spoke not of deterrence but of their own views.

State Trooper Jill Rockey, representing the New Hampshire Troopers' Association, said before joining law enforcement she was opposed to the death penalty. That changed, Rockey said, as she began working closely with crime victims.

She said the death penalty should remain an option for families of capital murder victims and the prosecutors assigned those cases.

Manchester Police Officer John Breckinridge, whose police partner, Michael Briggs, was murdered by Michael Addison in 2006, spoke about New Hampshire's sparing use of the death penalty. He wants it to remain that way, he said.

When Addison fatally shot Briggs, he "was lashing out against society, saying he does not accept our laws and order," Breckinridge said. Addison had been given chances to better himself since childhood but had chosen a life of crime, Breckinridge said.

"For such a person, the death penalty is an appropriate response," he said.

Ray Krone of Pennsylvania talked about the 10 years he spent in prison, about three of them on death row, for the murder of a bar waitress. Krone was freed in 2002 after DNA evidence exonerated him.

"The ultimate punishment is living on death row," Krone said. "You have to live every day knowing what you did. Death is the easy way out."

Gail Rice of Illinois testified against the death penalty, even though her police officer brother was murdered in the line of duty in Denver in 1997. "I think some criminal lives can be restored," she said. "I believe nothing in the death penalty is restorative."

For more information about the study commission, including the dates of upcoming meetings, visit

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