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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Execution numbers decline

As fewer people are being executed in the U.S. and state budgets are being slashed, officials around the nation are evaluating the cost of killing prisoners, especially in places with only a few executions each year.

Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty as they reviewed whether its high costs matched its benefits as a deterrent, according to a nonpartisan organization that studies capital punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Center reported Friday that there were fewer executions this year since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

This year, 106 convicts were put to death, compared with a high of 328 people in 1994.

In New Hampshire, a legislative-created commission continues to study whether the death penalty is needed.

At the moment, the state has one death row inmate, Michael Addison. So far, the state has spent $2.7 million on prosecution and public defender costs for Addison, who was convicted of killing Manchester police officer Michael Briggs.

A capital punishment case typically costs several million dollars, covering the expense of a trial and appeals, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who flew from Washington to New Hampshire this month to address the state’s commission about the costs of the death penalty.

States like New Hampshire are questioning what sort of return they get from keeping capital punishment on the books with those high costs, Dieter said.

Addison, for instance, is the first person in 50 years to receive a death sentence from a New Hampshire court. And New Hampshire is the only state of the 36 states with capital punishment that doesn’t have a death row.

A June 2008 master plan by the state Department of Corrections concluded it would cost $3.4 million to build and staff a chamber to carry out death by lethal injection.

“In a time of an economic crunch, states are looking at cutting programs that aren’t effective,” Dieter said.

“In a way, the declining use of the death penalty reinforces that. It’s more a symbolic kind of punishment, and a majority of states use it this way.”

Meanwhile, recent legislation that tried to expand the death penalty here was blocked by a House of Representatives committee. The bill, which would have made home-invasion killings an offense punishable by death, was named in honor of Kimberly Cates, the Mont Vernon woman who was killed in her home allegedly by two young men.

The recent House measure on using the death penalty for home-invasion murders, however, didn’t fail because of costs.

Democrats shot down the request saying the bill would duplicate a Senate measure and that no similar law has been sought since the 2001 killings of two Dartmouth College professors in their home.

Typically, the review by states hasn’t been prompted by the death penalty’s moral implications, Dieter said.

Rather, Dieter said the program has flaws – particularly the fact that many death-row inmates are exonerated – evidence enough that states are studying a basic black and white fact that the cost of the punishment compared to the benefits of return are not proportional.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.