Benson vetoes bill to bar executing 17-year-olds

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Gov. Craig Benson vetoed a bill Monday that would have raised the minimum execution age in New Hampshire from 17 to 18 and pledged to seek capital punishment for anyone who kills a police officer.

The state’s capital punishment statute is limited to those who kill a police officer, judge or similar official. It also applies if the murder took place during a kidnapping or rape, during certain drug crimes or while serving a life prison term without parole. Murder by hire also is punishable by death.

“It seems to me when somebody — regardless of their age — is bold enough to take the life of a police officer, there should be no exceptions, we should make sure they pay the ultimate price,” said Benson, flanked by more than two dozen police officers.

“I’m going to make a pledge as governor that if anybody takes the life of a police officer, we will seek the death penalty and make sure we stand up for those who protect us.”

The veto means the bill is almost certainly dead this year. The House overwhelmingly supported raising the age, but the Senate voted 12-11 in favor of the change — far short of the two-thirds needed to override the veto.

If a jury finds someone guilty of capital murder, it must then consider aggravating and mitigating factors before a death sentence is handed down.

Supporters of the bill argued that 17-year-olds can’t vote, enlist in the military, buy cigarettes or buy alcohol, but can be put to death under New Hampshire’s law.

Opponents countered that 17-year-olds are old enough to be treated as adults.

Benson said he would have “no regrets” treating the 17-year-olds as adults and executing them.

“I’m standing up for police officers,” he said.

Renny Cushing, executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, said he was disappointed Benson vetoed protections for children against execution.

“It’s an unfortunate day,” he said. “It sends a terrible message about human rights.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide this fall whether executing teens who commit crimes before they reach 18 amounts to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Constitution.

The decision to consider the issue reflects the court’s latest step in re-examining capital punishment.

In 1988, the court barred executing children under 16 when they committed their crimes, but the following year said 16- and 17-year-olds could be executed.

Though New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939, capital punishment was pushed into the spotlight when a federal judge in Massachusetts ordered convicted carjacker Gary Sampson to be executed in the state.

Death penalty opponents will have five to eight years while Sampson appeals his sentence to try to strip the laws from the books.

The Legislature voted to repeal New Hampshire’s death penalty in 2000, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. The House subsequently failed to override the veto by 34 votes. An attempt the following year to repeal the law failed to pass by eight votes.