Last Thursday, New Hampshire’s state Senate became the first in the nation to vote to abolish capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The measure would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill the following day. [includes rush transcript]
The legislation was passed by the 400-member House in March. Death penalty abolitionists view this bill as part of a national momentum shift on the issue of capital punishment. Illinois Governor George Ryan called for a moratorium on executions in his state after 13 innocent people were freed from death row. The state of Maryland has ordered a study on racial disparities in sentencing, and Virginia has made it easier to introduce new evidence.
There are 3,600 inmates on death row in 36 states nationwide. Last year, a record 98 inmates were executed, a third of them in Texas. At the same time, more death row prisoners were freed than in recent years. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll reported that national support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in more than a decade. New Hampshire, which has a low crime rate and no one on death row, has not put anyone to death since 1939.
- Rep. Jim Splaine, New Hampshire State Representative and lead Democratic sponsor of the abolition bill. He was also the author of the state’s 1975 statute giving it first in the nation primary election status.
- Rep. Jackie Weatherspoon, New Hampshire State Representative and a key sponsor of the abolition bill.
AMY GOODMAN: Last Friday, New Hampshire’s governor vetoed a bill to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire. Last Thursday, New Hampshire’s state Senate became the first in the nation to vote to abolish capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The measure would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. Now, the state legislature has to decide whether to override the governor’s veto. The governor is a Democrat. She is Governor Jeanne Shaheen.
The legislation was passed by the 400-member House in March. Death penalty abolitionists view this bill as part of a national momentum shift on the issue of capital punishment. Illinois Governor George Ryan called for a moratorium on executions in his state after thirteen innocent people were freed from death row. The state of Maryland has ordered a study on racial disparities in sentencing, and Virginia has made it easier to introduce new evidence.
There are currently more than 3,600 prisoners on death row in thirty-six states nationwide. Last year, a record ninety-eight prisoners were executed, a third of them in Texas. At the same time, more death row prisoners were freed than in recent years.
Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll reported that national support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in more than a decade. New Hampshire, which has a low crime rate and no one on death row, has not put anyone to death since 1939.
We’re joined right now by two legislators from New Hampshire. Representative Jackie Weatherspoon was a key sponsor of the abolition bill, and Representative Jim Splaine, a New Hampshire state representative, who is the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill.
We’ll begin with Jackie Weatherspoon. Can you explain what this legislation that the governor has vetoed is all about?
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: Well, the chief thing that we wanted to say is that we were not against people being prosecuted for crimes, but that this piece of legislation would say that you would spend life in prison. And that was one of the chief things that I was disappointed with the governor. We did not say “release people on parole,” but that they would spend their time in prison without parole.
AMY GOODMAN: Representative Jim Splaine, can you explain how you came to introduce this bill?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: It certainly seems to me that New Hampshire should not be joining the countries like China and Iran and Iraq in having capital punishment, and states like Texas. And it seemed to me that this was an opportunity this year to get New Hampshire to abolish the death penalty and at least to take another look at the issue.
And what this legislation essentially did — and all it did, really — is it replaced life in prison without any chance of parole for the death penalty. In other words, it really replaces one death penalty with another. Instead of having to go through six or seven years of appeals and then you were executed, you spend the rest of your life in jail, then you die.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think Governor Jeanne Shaheen is so intent on vetoing this, the Democratic governor?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: My judgment is Governor Jeanne Shaheen is a very good person. She has been governor now for three years. I still support her, despite her position on this issue. She has done a lot of other good things. But it seems to me as if she did not really focus in on the arguments, some of the new arguments, new facts about the death penalty that we presented during eight hours of public hearings in the House and five hours of public hearings in the State Senate. She was not able to work into her work schedule any attendance at either of those public hearings, except five minutes at one, where she came and briefly gave her comments against, and then she was out of there. I think that if she had listened, she would have done what many House members and what many Senate members did and that was change her mind or at least understand that some of the old myths about the death penalty really are not factual.
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: Yeah, she wanted to send a very strong message to law enforcement that she supported their work. And she had mentioned a couple of times that there was a man who had stalked a number of people, and if she did not support her law enforcement, that that would make the system appear weak.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to legislators Jim Splaine and Jackie Weatherspoon of New Hampshire, after both the House and the Senate of the state legislature in New Hampshire have passed an abolition of the death penalty.
Can you talk, Jackie Weatherspoon, about fitting New Hampshire into the nationwide movement that is trying to abolish the death penalty in this, the only country in the industrialized world that has it.
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: Yes. First of all, I have to say that my strong message to the governor was, look, you passed the Martin Luther King Day bill. We were the last state to have that bill, which was passed just at our last session. We felt that we wanted to take leadership on the death penalty picture, because of a number of things. One, there are no millionaires on death row in the United States; two, the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics on death row.
Also, we began to look at just sentencing in America, period — the length of sentencing, where if you’re a black and a youth, you can get fifteen to life for a couple of grams of cocaine. And so, this part of the bill, looking at the death penalty, was really the umbrella, in my opinion, in why I wanted to support this legislation to bring to the forefront of sentencing.
And we know that the legislature in each state has to deal with this, because the judges just follow our lead. And it has been documented that when a number of judges sentence people, they ask people to plead guilty. So we have a — we also have that notion if you plead guilty and you don’t have a good defense, you’re going to go to jail. But if you have a good defense and you don’t plead guilty, you get less — if you do plead guilty, you’ll get less time.
So we have to look at, one, who is on death row, how much money they have, those who serve on death row, the length of sentencing, the number of black and Hispanic youth that are in prison. And as we look across, as far as every UN document and what women support in this country, we don’t support the death penalty.
So, having that as the umbrella, I decided to fiercely back this piece of legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, Jackie Weatherspoon and Jim Splaine our guests, both House representatives in New Hampshire. The House and then the State Senate voted to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire. We will see what happens in the next few days.
But Representative Jim Splaine, how significant is this in New Hampshire, given that we’re talking about no one’s on death row and no one’s been executed there since 1939?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: Well, I think Jackie Weatherspoon just really summarized it very, very well, that this is not just about New Hampshire. This is not just about a vote in the House and Senate in New Hampshire. And even though the governor has vetoed the legislation, and whether or not we are able to override the legislation, we have at least attained the success of opening up the discussion more than it probably has been in quite some time in this country, about whether or not the death penalty is something that we should have on the books.
People are discriminated against with the death penalty. People who are judged to be minority, whether they happen to be perceived to be gay or different or black, or whatever, tend to have the more serious penalties rendered against them. So, by opening up the issue, by getting people to really come to their core feelings about the death penalty and pointing out that life imprisonment without any chance of parole is indeed a very serious punishment, I think that we’ve been able to contribute to the cause of eventually seeing a time when, throughout this country, no state and the federal government have the death penalty.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect will happen?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: Well, as of this past Friday, she did veto it formally. It goes now back to the House of Representatives. We would need 267 votes out of the 400-member House of Representatives in order to override her veto. We can take the bill up in the next two weeks, or we can take it up sometime in June. In fact, we don’t have to take it up at all. But I would expect that a number of people have already told us that they have changed their opinions in the House against the bill toward it. In other words, we have picked up more support during the past couple of months in the House. I don’t know if we can attain 267 votes. That is a — that’s a lot of votes to attain.
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: You know, New Hampshire, Amy —
AMY GOODMAN: Jackie Weatherspoon.
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: Yeah — is a very interesting state. For instance, the Republican Party did not support George Bush in the primary. They supported McCain. And I’m looking forward to the next vote coming up, because folks up here are very, very independent. And they will surprise you. The motto is “Live Free or Die.” And they really take that free mindedness. For instance, you would think that this would be a pro-life state, but New Hampshire is a pro-choice state. The state also was in support of partial birth abortion.
We also, on this bill, had the backing of the Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, Church Women United. So the coalitions that supported us — Amnesty International, American Friends Society, all of our Jewish rabbis — for the support of banning the death penalty. So — and these are the same groups that worked with us very closely on the Martin Luther King Day, Jr. bill. The state is changing in so many ways. We have gotten also bipartisanship. One of the gentlemen that supported the bill, it took him a long time to come onboard with the MLK Day. But he did his work. He was a Republican. He did his work. And he supported us on this bill.
So I would say New Hampshire, depending on the subject, they will say, “Do not peg us. Let us use our independence to make the choice that really says that this is a democracy.” And so, we are looking forward to what the next vote will be, because if we can convince more members of the House that this is a bill for life imprisonment and as some of the Republican state senators said, we don’t have the right, we don’t have the omnipotence to know that everyone that we are saying should be put to death is guilty. They do not want that blood on their hands. So, like Jim has stated, we are sure that we will be picking up some more votes on this issue, once they realize and listen to the argument that this is life in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: While New Hampshire is a small state, it’s certainly had a big effect on this country, being the first primary state. State legislator Jim Splaine, you were responsible for that, author of the state’s 1975 statute giving it first-in-the-nation primary election status.
Can you explain what your thoughts were at the time and how it’s gone over the last — your assessment of it over the last quarter of a century?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: The first-in-the-nation primary?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
REP. JIM SPLAINE: Is that what you are addressing?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
REP. JIM SPLAINE: I sponsored the bill in 1975 that says New Hampshire will be first by any — by one week ahead of any other state. And by so doing, no other state and neither party has been able to figure out a way around that law. And it’s guaranteed our status.
I think that by having the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, it allows candidates who might not have a lot of money or a lot of national fame to be able to run and make some inroads. And, of course, that has happened from time to time. I don’t think Jimmy Carter would have been president in 1976, if it wasn’t for the New Hampshire primary being able to give him the kind of jump that he had. Maybe the same thing with Ronald Reagan, by the way, and certainly with Bill Clinton being able to come back and come in second. And needless to say, what happened with John McCain’s surprising win, I don’t think he would have had a push if it wasn’t for New Hampshire giving him a place where he could focus in.
And it really justifies a smaller state being able to be where the first primary is and a state where it doesn’t cost megabucks in order to run.
AMY GOODMAN: And what has it meant for New Hampshire?
REP. JIM SPLAINE: I think what it’s meant for New Hampshire is that it has allowed us in New Hampshire to be able to have an electorate that is very well aware of both national and statewide issues. We get exposed very heavily, not only during the primary season once every four years, but the time leading up to it, to national issues and events. A lot of potential national candidates visit New Hampshire at least starting a couple of years before the presidential primary is scheduled to kind of introduce themselves. And I think New Hampshire voters tend to become a little more active — a lot more active, perhaps — because of that. I do hope that we can eliminate nationwide the front-loading in 2004, where so many states held their primaries so early so that more states, the citizens of more states will be able to experience the benefits of having candidates visit and have some one-to-one dialogue with them.
REP. JACKIE WEATHERSPOON: You know, let me just tag onto that, Amy. Folks like Alan Keyes or even Elizabeth Dole, you can walk around New Hampshire, talk to the citizens, visit people in their homes, and it does not cost you a penny. You could go to schools, supermarkets, and people will listen to you. And when people say, well, the people of color population is quite small, a vote is a vote is a vote. And that doesn’t mean also if it’s quite small that the people of color population up here is not cognizant of what the issues are in America and are not part of the decision-making machine. And I think that’s something that a number of the presidential candidates realized this time and that I made sure was on the docket with this primary, that you cannot discount people of color just being Democrats. So each of the major candidates made some attempt, but especially the Vice President, to meet with people with color around the state during the primary.
And again, if — when we say up here, “Do not take the people of color vote for granted,” we were the — beginning to be the first ones to say that. And it has reverberated around the country during the primary. And it will also take place this November.
So the numbers may be small, but we are still Americans. We are still cognizant of all the issues that pertain, whether it’s race or class. And New Hampshire is reflective of that, whether it’s in terms of healthcare, in terms of education, in terms of technology. I speak about the digital divide. We brought all of these questions. If the candidates would meet with us, these were all brought before them.
AMY GOODMAN: Jim Splaine and Jackie Weatherspoon, two state representatives from New Hampshire. The governor has vetoed the bill that was passed by both the Senate and the House in New Hampshire that would abolish the death penalty. Now it goes back to the legislature, and we’ll see if they override her veto.