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N.H. Legislature vote: Repeal death penalty

New Hampshire lawmakers ignored a veto threat from the governor and voted to repeal the death penalty Thursday, reflecting growing doubts about capital punishment around the country.

No state has repealed the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. The only other state legislature to vote for repeal was Nebraska's in 1979, and the bill was vetoed.

Thursday's move is largely symbolic. No one is on death row in New Hampshire, the state had the lowest murder rate in the nation in 1998, and Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen has said she won't let the repeal stand.

"There are some murders so heinous that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, and, accordingly, I will veto this legislation," she said after the Senate voted 14-10, endorsing a House vote taken in March.

At the same time, the vote adds to the momentum death penalty opponents have built around the country.

"The vote today is indicative of what many persons are beginning to realize about the death penalty _ that it is unnecessary, there are other ways to ensure safety," said Steven Hawkins, director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington.

In January, Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois suspended all executions pending a task force study. The decision followed the release of 13 death row inmates found to have been wrongly or unfairly convicted.

President Clinton has since asked governors to examine their use of the death penalty. And even conservatives like religious broadcaster Pat Robertson have encouraged states to review their procedures to ensure they don't discriminate against minorities or the poor.

In New Hampshire, state Sen. Burt Cohen, who sponsored the bill, said the state's use of the death penalty as a bargaining chip in getting murderers to accept life in prison is "obscene and unethical." And he said the death penalty is applied disproportionately to poor people and minorities.

"They are facing execution because of who they are, not what they did," Cohen said.

Democratic state Sen. Clifton Below, an opponent of the death penalty, broke down during the hourlong debate when he described how he lost a close friend to a drunken driver.

"I have felt such rage, such a passion to see evil brought to justice, that if given the chance, I thought I could volunteer to be executioner," he said. But he said he has realized that life without parole is sufficient punishment for even the worst crimes.

Eighty-seven people have been released from death rows since 1973, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. But executions are on the rise, with 3,600 people on death row. Thirty-eight states, the federal government and the military have the death penalty, though some have not yet used it.

In Concord, repeal advocates launched a round-the-clock vigil outside the Statehouse to pressure Shaheen.

The Senate vote fell short of the 16 votes needed to override a veto. The 400-member House approved the repeal in March 191-163, also well short of the two-thirds necessary for an override.

In defense of the death penalty, Republican state Sen. Richard Russman said New Hampshire has taken a cautious approach _ the state's last execution was in 1939 _ and that capital punishment promotes justice.

"We cannot turn our backs on a lot of the victims, the victims' families," he said. "It may sound harsh, but I think it does serve a legitimate purpose."

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