US state votes to end death penalty

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The Independent US

In a move anti-death penalty campaigners hailed as a sign of changing times, the New Hampshire legislature voted last night to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment.

In a move anti-death penalty campaigners hailed as a sign of changing times, the New Hampshire legislature voted last night to abolish capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment.

The vote made New Hampshire the first state of the Union to approve the repeal of the death penalty since the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of executions in 1976.

The Bill was passed by the state's lower house in March by a big majority and was adopted by a majority of 14 to 10 in the Senate yesterday. A similar Bill was rejected last year.

The practical significance of the vote is limited. New Hampshire is one of the smallest states in the US; it is widely regarded as a maverick and it also has one of the lowest murder rates in the country. The last time anyone in New Hampshire was executed was in 1939.

The vote does not even mean the removal of the death penalty from the statute book. The state governor, Jeanne Shaheen, supports the principle of execution. She made clear on the eve of the vote that she would veto the Bill - and the size of the majority in the Senate was not sufficient to override her veto.

The social and moral significance of the vote, however, is much greater. At very least it represents a change of the legislature's mood in the past 12 months. New Hampshire may also be more indicative of the national sentiment than is often believed. It only reinstated the death penalty in 1991, when public concern about crime was at its height nationally and "zero-tolerance" policing was gaining currency.

It could now be the first to register the reversal of that trend. One key to the shift is the advent of DNA testing, which helped to raise the exoneration rate of Death Row prisoners last year to its highest level.

Illinois declared a moratorium on executions last year after an inquiry found that as many as 13 innocent people were on the state's Death Row, and several other states have instituted inquiries.

A Gallup poll in February showed support for the death penalty nationwide at its lowest level for a decade, and last week a group of prominent lawyers launched a campaign to re-examine all aspects of the death penalty.

That proponents are also calling for such a review is evidence of concern within the legal profession that publicity about wrongful executions could undermine public confidence in the judicial process.

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