“Being the survivor of a homicide victim has a pain for which there aren’t any words,” says New Hampshire Representative Renny Cushing (pictured), in the latest episode of the Death Penalty Information Center podcast, Discussions with DPIC. But “[f]illing another coffin doesn’t do anything to bring our loved ones back, it just widens the circle of pain. There’s a big difference between justice and vengeance,” he says.

In an interview with DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, Cushing discusses how being a family member of two murder victims radically altered his life and influenced his work as a legislator and death-penalty abolitionist. “[W]e have a criminal justice system that’s a lot about winning and losing and punishing, but not that much about truth-telling and healing,” he says. “Often locked out from the whole discussion is victims and what their needs are.” Cushing’s father and brother-in-law were killed in separate incidents, and his experience facing the aftermath was instrumental in shaping New Hampshire’s path to abolishing capital punishment. In the interview, he describes his role as the sponsor of the repeal bill, working with a broad coalition to abolish the death penalty and bringing together people from across the political spectrum with a variety of life experiences and personal values. Cushing addresses how New Hampshire repeal advocates challenged the myths that victim’s family members and law enforcement monolithically support capital punishment and empowered victims and law enforcement voices to speak out against the death penalty. Cushing also discusses the ways in which the criminal justice system fails victims, and how he has worked to make sure victims are heard, regardless of their views on capital punishment.

During the interview, Cushing spoke eloquently about the effect of his father’s murder on his life and the ways in which people expected him to respond. He told the story of a chance encounter with a family friend, shortly after the murder, who assumed that Cushing would want his father’s killer executed, despite his longstanding opposition to the death penalty. “He thought that because my father was murdered, I had changed my position on the death penalty. If I had done that, that would have only given over more power to the killer, that would have only given more power to the act of murder, because not only would my father be taken from me, but so too would my values,” he explained. He said his opposition to the death penalty imposed an additional burden on him because he felt an “obligation” to share views that at the time were outside the expectation people had for a victim’s survivor.

As a legislator, Cushing wanted to ensure that victims had a voice in the criminal justice system and that their diverse views on crime and justice were heard and respected: “I think the most important thing that I helped do and that other victims’ survivors helped do is change the political climate so that people can realize that you can be both pro-victim and anti-death penalty. That’s really important if we’re going to have a thoughtful discussion about public policy in the halls of statehouses as well as the courthouses in this country.”

In discussing the efforts to repeal capital punishment, Cushing spoke about bringing together “voices of experience,” including victims, law enforcement, and death-row exonerees, and the value of their stories to inform the debate. He also addressed the bipartisan support for New Hampshire’s repeal: “It was through finding that common ground and understanding and valuing everyone’s perspective and their reasons for being in the room that enabled us over two decades to build a majority that ultimately was successful.” When asked about the future of capital punishment in the U.S., Cushing said, “I think the future is that the death penalty is going to go away. It’s going to go the way of slavery, … of disenfranchisement of women, of segregation. It’s a social evil that will be eliminated.”

Discussions with DPIC, Rep. Renny Cushing on Empowering Crime Survivors and Repealing New Hampshire’s Death Penalty, July 3, 2019.