“As conservatives, we know the government’s flawed. We hate the government,” says Hannah Cox, the national manager of the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Why would we give it power over life and death?”
And fiscal conservatives have balked at the cost of putting someone on death row, which is more expensive than sentencing them to life in prison. A significant portion of the cost of a death-penalty case is incurred at the trial level, because these cases require multiple trials: one deciding a defendant’s guilt, and another determining whether capital punishment is truly warranted—not to mention appeals.
Overall, the opposition to the death penalty among Republicans represents a genuine, if slim, fault line in the party, one that could grow in parallel with concerns about the criminal-justice system as a whole. State lawmakers seem like the ones to watch: From 2000 to 2016, the number of GOP legislators sponsoring death-penalty-repeal bills increased by more than a factor of 10, according to Cox’s group. Repeal efforts have made it strikingly far in some conservative states. In February, Wyoming’s repeal bill passed the House and came within seven votes of passing the Senate. In Utah, a 2016 repeal effort passed the Senate but was just eight votes shy in the House. And in 2015, Nebraska lawmakers successfully overrode the governor’s veto to ban the death penalty, although it was later reinstated.
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In New Hampshire, the anti-death-penalty movement can be traced to the late 1990s, when the Democratic legislator Renny Cushing, whose father was murdered, introduced his first repeal bill in 1998. (He’s since made death-penalty repeal in the state his central cause.) Repeal efforts picked up around 2006, says Barbara Keshen, the chair of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, when the state brought a capital case against Michael Addison, a black man accused of killing a white police officer. He is now New Hampshire’s sole death-row inmate; if he were executed today, he would be the first person put to death by the state since 1939.
After the Addison trial's conclusion, in 2009, yet another repeal bill was introduced in the House, and “to the surprise of everyone, it passed,” Keshen says. Though it never even got a vote in the Senate—the governor at the time, the Democrat John Lynch, had promised to veto it—support for the death penalty’s repeal in New Hampshire has only swelled in the decade since. “I think what makes us so excited this year,” said Jeanne Hruska, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, when we talked before the veto-override vote, “is the level of bipartisan support.”
When Cushing introduced his bill again this year, 72 Republicans in the House joined most of the 212 Democrats in backing it. In the Senate, the bill also passed with bipartisan support, with five Republicans joining 12 Democrats. On Thursday morning, Sununu issued a statement expressing his disappointment in the Senate’s override of his veto: “I have consistently stood with law enforcement, families of crime victims and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty because it is the right thing to do.” (When Sununu vetoed the repeal bill last year, he surrounded himself with police officers.)