N.H. Senate OK’s expanding state’s capital punishment law

By Norma Love
Associated Press / June 3, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. — A machete and knife attack that killed a mother prompted the New Hampshire Senate to pass a bill yesterday that allows capital punishment for killings committed during burglaries of occupied buildings.

The Senate voted by voice after a short debate to send the bill back to the House, where it’s expected to pass. House Speaker William O’Brien sponsored the bill in response to a gruesome murder in his hometown of Mont Vernon during a home invasion.

Senator Jim Luther, Republican of Hollis, said applying the death penalty to burglaries would protect homeowners.

But Senate Democratic leader Sylvia Larsen of Concord said she was not convinced the bill would have prevented the Mont Vernon murder or future crimes. Larsen also pointed out that the bill was not limited to homes, but could include businesses.

Senator Amanda Merrill, Democrat of Durham, said the state shouldn’t rate murders by picking some as warranting capital punishment but not others.

O’Brien named the bill after Kimberly Cates, who was killed in her bed in a machete-and-knife attack during the Mont Vernon home invasion in 2009. The Senate passed the bill with an amendment offered by O’Brien that narrows its application.

Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, supports the amended bill.

O’Brien’s original bill called for applying the death penalty to murders during home invasions, but state law has no legal definition for home invasions. The attorney general’s office testified at a House hearing last winter that the bill would cover a wider variety of behaviors than the Cates case, and the office offered to help narrow the bill.

But the House passed O’Brien’s bill unchanged.

O’Brien offered his amendment to narrow the bill when it came to the Senate.

The attorney general’s office says the amended bill would do what O’Brien intended without covering crimes far different from the Cates case, such as one burglar killing another to keep robbery loot to himself, or a death resulting from a fight with an estranged spouse.

Steven Spader was convicted last year of murdering Cates and was sentenced to life without parole. Codefendant Christopher Gribble admitted to taking part in the attacks but tried unsuccessfully to convince the jury he was insane at the time. He was sentenced to life without parole. Three others were sentenced for lesser crimes.

Spader and Gribble couldn’t have faced the death penalty in the attack because the crime is not one of six types of murders punishable by death under New Hampshire’s statute, one of the narrowest in the nation.

The six are: killing an on-duty law enforcement officer or judge, murder for hire, murder committed in connection with a kidnapping, murder committed during rape, murder committed during certain drug offenses, and murder committed by a convict already serving a sentence of life without parole.

New Hampshire rarely approves expansions to the law. The last, in 1994, was the addition of killing a judge.