I listened intently online this week as my state legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. It wasn’t close: 225-104. The bill now goes to the state senate. I’m happy with the day’s result, even though it leaves me unsettled.
You see, I lobby for pro-life bills, not including capital punishment, on which my employer takes no position. A number of the legislators who dependably cast votes recognizing the right to life for preborn children do not recognize such a right for death-row inmates. By being against the death penalty, even as a private individual, I recognize with regret that I offend some of those legislators without winning over others who defend abortion and consider me “anti-choice.” From a pragmatic point of view, my decision to speak out against the death penalty was asinine.
I don’t regret writing about repealing capital punishment, but I’m sure glad I didn’t do it to please anyone. I would have misfired badly.
This week’s debate in the New Hampshire House was beyond heartfelt. Gut-felt, is more like it.
The chief sponsor of the repeal bill, Rep. Renny Cushing, has a calm manner which paradoxically makes his arguments particularly compelling. His father was murdered some years ago, so no one can accuse him seriously of not understanding the grief and anger of families of murder victims. He has worked for years for repeal of our state’s rarely-invoked capital punishment law. His experience and the calm authority with which he told his colleagues “New Hampshire can live without the death penalty” kept the words from sounding like a trite slogan.
On the other hand, his colleagues who want to retain the death penalty were not so calm. They were angry and indignant. Some of them are cherished defenders of the rights of the preborn.
Rep. Jeanine Notter, for example. She’s one of my town’s state reps. She has sponsored legislation to promote women’s health by increasing public oversight of abortion facilities and stiffening informed-consent requirements. She’s also a determined advocate for the death penalty for heinous crimes. She went to the well and sharply spoke to her colleagues about the murder of Kimberly Cates and the attempted murder of Mrs. Cates’s daughter. No one who lived in New Hampshire in 2009 and was old enough to comprehend news reports will ever forget the horror of that crime. Jeanine reminded the House of every horrendous detail. The murderers are now serving life sentences. There was public outrage that the death penalty didn’t apply at that time to home invasions (the law has since been changed). For Jeanine, justice and fairness dictate that such killers deserve to get what they dished out to their victims.
What can I say to her? I know where she is on this, and she knows where I am – and we agree to disagree, unable as yet to bridge the gulf.
Then there’s Rep. Al Baldasaro, who tackles bills like the Marine he is (I dare not say “was,” since he once told me there’s no such thing as an “ex”-Marine). He spoke with an anger that came through clearly to me across the audio stream. “We have fifty million dead babies, and we’re concerned about capital punishment?” He knew perfectly well that some of the strongest advocates of repealing the death penalty are some of the most reliable votes against any bill to regulate abortion. Baldasaro could see that contradiction perfectly clearly.
He sees no contradiction in his abortion and capital punishment views. He sees innocent life vs. guilty criminals. So many supporters of repeal – including Rep. Cushing, judging from his voting record – see no contradiction between protecting women’s “right to choose” and eliminating state-sponsored killing.
I do see contradictions. But there’s a huge void between what I see and my ability to explain it.
One interesting if protracted speech today came from the pro-choice Rep. Steve Vaillancourt. Erroneous capital convictions haunt him. So does repeal without retroactivity. He tried to amend the repeal bill so that it would commute the death sentence of Michael Addison, New Hampshire’s sole death row inmate. He said if repeal is passed without applying to Addison, it would be like serving a meal to the whole community except for the one person “living under the bridge.” He’s right.
That’s how I feel about abortion-related bills with rape-and-incest exceptions. Lots of babies under that particular bridge. That hasn’t stopped me from supporting things like the Hyde Amendment, even with its exceptions.
His amendment failed in a lopsided vote. Everyone in the chamber knew that the governor has said she’ll sign the bill as long as it’s not retroactive. And so it’s not a “clean” bill. Someone will mutter “hypocrisy.” More hard feelings.
It was balm to my ears to hear the words of Rep. Robert Rowe, who spoke late in the debate. Pro-life across the spectrum, Rowe got his law degree about fifty years ago. He has never forgotten a case study from his student days, involving an erroneous conviction. “We can always restore freedom. We can’t restore life.” It was impossible for me to tell, listening from a distance, if anyone was still listening to the debate at that point. Late in the day, during lengthy debate, attention wanders. I sometimes wonder if the later speeches change anyone’s mind. I hope Rep. Rowe’s remarks did.
Rep. Cushing closed out the debate by saying, “If we let those who kill turn us into killers, evil triumphs.” A few moments later, the House voted overwhelmingly for repeal – a decisive victory by any reasonable measure.
Yet I can’t help but think of the 104 representatives in the minority. I look at the roll call and see many names of compassionate defenders of innocent life. They offer nonviolent options to pregnant women, they fight to make abortion providers accountable for long-term outcomes to women’s health, they fight for the right of the babies to be born. They make the world a better place. When it comes to the death penalty, though, we’re far apart. And I’m the one who moved, after too many years of hesitation.
What can I do to reach across the divide?