Robert Dunham 0:01

Hello, and welcome to Discussions With DPIC. I’m Robert Dunham, the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, I’ll be speaking with New Hampshire State Representative Renny Cushing. Representative Cushing is currently serving his seventh term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where he was the sponsor of the bill that abolished New Hampshire’s death penalty. He’s a longtime advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and co-founded Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. Thank you for joining us, Representative Cushing.

Rep Renny Cushing 0:28

Thanks for having me, Rob.

Robert Dunham 0:29

You’ve sponsored bills to abolish New Hampshire’s death penalty for many years. But people outside of the state are often surprised to learn about your background and how violence affected you and your family not just once, but on two separate occasions. Both your father and your brother-in-law were murdered in separate incidents years apart. Now, those are obviously life-changing events, and ones not often associated with death-penalty abolitionists. How did those experiences affect your views about the death penalty and ultimately end up with your becoming a leading voice calling for the end of the death penalty in New Hampshire?

Rep Renny Cushing 1:02

Well, I’m not sure I’d begin with how those experiences affected my view about the death penalty — it’s more about how having my family members murdered affected all of my life. It was three decades ago that my father was shotgunned to death in front of my mother in our family home. And from that moment on, thinking about what you do in the aftermath of murder stopped being an intellectual exercise and just became part of my life. Being the survivor of a homicide victim is, it’s kind of — has a pain for which there aren’t any words. And it’s, it’s, disempowering. Obviously, murder is disempowering to the person who ends up in the grave, but it’s also disempowering for those who are survivors of the loved one. And from the moment that the homicide takes place, it’s a process of trying to regain that control that’s been taken away from you. And that’s the, that’s the journey that all victims’ survivors have to make. And I say that, I didn’t — after my father’s murder, I didn’t think much about the death penalty. I was more concerned about what to do with the empty chair at the table, where my father used to sit, and what you do with the aching in your heart, and, you know, how come he was murdered, and who killed him? Because it was a long period — or three months, which seemed like an eternity — when we didn’t know who was responsible for the murder. But something happened to me a couple weeks after my dad was murdered, when I went to the corner grocery store and ran into an old family friend, and he came up to me and said, “Hey, Renny, I hope they fry the bastard. I hope they fry the bastard so you, and your mother, and your family can get some peace.” And I didn’t really know how to respond to him at that moment. In part, because this is a guy who’d known me my whole life. And he knew that before my father was murdered, I’d opposed the death penalty. But, he was, I realized that he was offering me some kind of solace, if you will. I mean, he wasn’t saying he wanted an execution because he was trying to be mean. And not being able to respond, I thought about it, for the next couple weeks, and then I realized that he had thought that because my father was murdered, I changed my position on the death penalty. And if I’d done that, that would have only given over more power to the killers, 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. That would kind of compound the crime. But I also became aware, or I am aware that we live in a society, that there’s a widely held paradigm that presumes that all family members and murder victims want the death penalty, and that they need the death penalty for some reason. And so, our elected officials are almost under, you know, have a moral obligation to provide for victims, paying for execution solution to victims’ pain. But I wasn’t like that. And so, realizing that he had thought I would change my position on the death penalty, a little light went on that he wasn’t going to be the only one. And in a way, being the survivor of a homicide victim who opposed the death penalty, was like another burden that gets imposed upon you as a survivor of murder victims. It was a burden, if you will, to make clear, that notwithstanding what anybody else thought, my own, my own principles, my own claim of control, I had an affirmative obligation to tell people yeah, my dad was murdered, but I oppose capital punishment. And it was kind of a, that’s where my journey began speaking out or thinking about the death penalty as a victim’s survivor. But it was, it was really, it’s my victim-centered opposition. It’s not because I care that much about what the death penalty does to those upon whom it’s imposed. But I do care a lot about the death penalty as a, as a survivor about what values we’re going to hold as a society. Because if we let people who kill turn us to killers, then, you know, that is a triumph of evil.

Robert Dunham 5:30

We often hear from death penalty proponents, that the death penalty is necessary for victims, for family members to bring closure and to bring justice to the families. So how do you feel, having gone through this journey yourself when you hear those arguments being made? And how do you respond to them?

Rep Renny Cushing 5:52

Well, I actually, I hate the word closure. So I, try not to use it. I don’t like it when people are prescriptive about what victim survivors need or want. I realized that among the survivor population, there’s a diversity of opinions about the death penalty. But I don’t like it when others speak for victims. It’s been my experience, actually, sometimes, when I speak out as a victim-survivor, that people somehow will think that, maybe I didn’t really love my father and my brother-in-law — or other victims who do that maybe they didn’t love their siblings or their spouse. Or perhaps we’re a little crazy, or we’re some kind of, you know, holier, holy people. The reality is that having somebody murdered is awful. But all of us muddle along and have come to the conclusion that filling another coffin doesn’t do anything to bring our loved ones back. It just widens the circle of pain. And there’s a big difference between justice and vengeance. And when you come to, when it comes to the death penalty, it’s not like it can be any true justice. True justice would come if you could take the life of the person who committed the murder and exchange it for the one who’s in the grave, but we can’t do that. But what we can do, is try to fashion public policy that holds people who commit crimes, who commit homicides accountable for their actions, and helps embrace victims, and, and, take important steps to reduce violence, reduce homicide. Those are what the priority should be. It never ceases to amaze me, when I hear people, and some of my colleagues doing public policy, who you know, somehow think that they want to equate being pro-death penalty as being pro-victim. And that’s just so far in divorce from reality, that it’s not that at all.

Robert Dunham 8:08

In 1995, when I was representing people on death row in Pennsylvania, we had a case with a gentleman by the name of Keith Zettlemoyer, and I actually represented Aldonna Devestco, who was the mother of Mr. Zettlemoyer’s victim. And she was against the death penalty, and she didn’t want the execution to go forward. But she told us and she told the media, that she didn’t want people to think that she was crazy because she didn’t want the execution to go forward. We’re more than 25 years removed from that, and do you think that, that things have changed? How much of things changed, in public perception, about what victims think about, what family members think about capital punishment?

Rep Renny Cushing 8:59

Well, I think there’s been a lot of change, about the perception. You know, 25 years ago, I would have to say that it was widely assumed that all family members of murder victims wanted the death penalty. Yeah, if you didn’t, you were some kind of aberration, some kind of a nut. But I will say, and that was, in many ways, that was an assumption that was made by both proponents and opponents of the death penalty. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve interacted with people who are from the defense bar, or people who are from the abolition movement that kind of bought into the myth that all family members of murder victims wanted the death penalty. And I think, in large part that was because for a long time the discussion about capital punishment took place as a matter of litigation and in the courthouses. And in a way, you know, litigation is, it’s different. I think there’s a presumption that you know, that there was a declaration by prosecutors that they represented the interest of victims and that all victims wanted the death penalty. There was an assumption made from many on the part of the defense bar that that was true. But nobody really bothered to ask the victim survivors what they thought, and how nuanced it was. And so, for a long time, the last thing, if you’re a defense attorney, you wanted, is to have a victim, whether they were for or against the death penalty, involved in a death penalty case because, you know, our system of justice works when we try to focus upon, upon the defendant, and, you know, and understandably so. But often locked out from the whole discussion is victims and what their needs are of crime. And we have a criminal justice system that’s a lot about winning, losing, and punishing, but not that much about, you know, truth-telling and healing. I accept that we, that, that’s what the reality it is, but within that confine, I think I try to be an advocate for victim autonomy, victim support, and the ability for victims to speak for themselves, about themselves, and not have prosecutors speak for them, and not have defense attorneys speak for them, and not have abolitionists speak for them. But just to listen to their, to their truth, to our truths. And sometimes it’s hard. It’s hard to hear what the reality is. But I also think it’s really important that our voices be heard. And I see that, it’s been my experience from doing work as a legislator, that that helps change the dynamic. You know, I go back to the first question you asked me — about how having my father murdered changed my life and ended up affecting me becoming involved in the abolition movement of the death penalty. When the issue of capital punishment in New Hampshire first came up, I was a legislator — a younger legislator — and there was an effort to expand capital punishment in New Hampshire. There had been a series of high profile murders — you know, couple of law enforcement, state troopers, judge, newspaper publisher, a six-year-old girl. In Massachusetts nearby, there was a heinous murder of a six-year-old boy that led to Massachusetts reinstating the death penalty — temporarily, didn’t go all the way through, but that created hysteria in my state. And, with a united front to expand capital punishment, I found myself in a position of being both a lawmaker and a victim survivor. And if nothing else, people recognize that I’m some kind of stakeholder in the criminal justice system because my dad was murdered.

Robert Dunham 13:03

Do you think your voice has more impact because of that?

Rep Renny Cushing 13:05

Oh, yes, I think so. I think people respect, people may, even if they think you’re a little nutty, I think most people — not everyone — but most people, you know, recognize that having somebody murdered changes everything for people. Even if you want to project what you might feel if it was in your situation, no one really wants to, you know, I’m part of a club that no one wants to belong to. And, but I think it also allows, it provides the opportunity to — not opportunity, but it is a way that I get to speak and have an opinion that’s based in some reality. I remember, when I first started doing anti-death penalty work as a legislator, when there was a move to expand the death penalty — a friend of mine came up to me in a private conversation, said, “Hey Renny, you know you’re lucky you can oppose the death penalty because your father was murdered.” Now, it wasn’t that I had great fortune or that we thought it was real great fortune because my dad was murdered, but what my colleague was telling me is that, I could oppose the death penalty, and no one’s going to think that I’m, you know, being mean to victims. They might think I’m a little nutty, but I would be respected, as opposed to somebody who, you know, hadn’t had the same identity because of the widespread belief that victims wanted the death penalty and needed the death penalty, there was a perception that casting a vote against capital punishment would be casting a vote against crime victims. And I think the most important thing that I help do, and that other victim survivors help do, is change the political climate, so that people can realize that you can be both pro-victim and anti-death penalty. And that’s really important if we’re going to have a thoughtful discussion about public policy in the halls of the state houses, as well as the courthouses, in this country.

Robert Dunham 15:04

Now, you were talking earlier about the, the kind of myth that all victims families would, would want the death penalty. I think there’s another myth — and it’s about the second most used argument for the death penalty after justice for the family — that is, that the death penalty is necessary to protect the public and particularly to keep police safe. Law enforcement’s got enormous political influence in the legislative process, so how did you deal with those issues in your repeal efforts?

Rep Renny Cushing 15:36

We deal with it and in the same way that we deal with a widely held belief that all families and murder victims want a death penalty — we, we challenge it. And I’d say we don’t do it in a confrontative way. But we need to understand that law enforcement is not a monolith any more than victims are a monolith. And perhaps, some of the most effective voices in our campaign, here in New Hampshire against the death penalty, are people who were from law enforcement, who can articulate where the death penalty doesn’t work for law enforcement — that it diverts away from resources. There, you know, we had our Supreme Court Justices and former Attorneys General who came out and supported the repeal effort, who acknowledged, perhaps better than everyone, that mistakes get made in our criminal justice and our judicial system. And that there were compelling reasons because you needed a system that required absolute, you know, absolute certainty, that’s operated by fallible people that mistakes are going to be made. And when you have a combination — our experience, we have a combination of family members and murder victims who are taking the lead in opposition to the death penalty, joined by members of law enforcement, and then finally, voices of experience in people who had been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row and put a public face on some of the mistakes — it really helped shift the debate about capital punishment away from some of them who are often seen as kind of the traditional voices of opposition to the death penalty, which is, you know, the defense bar and the faith community. And not that those voices aren’t important, but as we try to, you know, gain a political majority to change these pretty deeply entrenched laws and policies, we needed to have additional voices. And those voices of experience were the most powerful.

Robert Dunham 17:47

How much do you think that facts matter in persuading legislators to vote one way or another on the death penalty versus feelings? I was up at the the house hearings that that you conducted, and there were 100 people who testified and we heard a number of facts. DPIC presented some evidence from 30 years of murder data that showed that states with the death penalty actually tend to have higher rates at which police officers killed, higher rates of murder in general. But it seemed to me that kind of argument, which is very fact based, has less impact than the individual stories of what people had experienced. So how do you, how do you weigh, how much fact and how much personal storytelling is necessary in trying to persuade people on capital punishment?

Rep Renny Cushing 18:41

I think you need both facts and the stories. I would just say that I know, and again, it becomes if you’re, you know, I’m involved in a legislative process and what’s most fundamental to legislative process to me is being able to count. And by that, I know that I have to get a majority of my legislative body to cast, and to agree with me in order to change the law. And how one reaches a majority, it’s done on an individual lawmaker by lawmaker basis, upon what they will make their decision. When you presented the argument, that states that had abolished the death penalty, that law enforcement, in fact, was safer than, than in states where the death penalty was practiced, that became part of the thought process for legislators who were trying to weigh what their vote would mean. I do think stories are really, are really important because they, they put a human face on it. It’s a way that we connect with each other. And otherwise, it’s you know, it’s not just an intellectual exercise. Lawmaking is completely — legislating is completely different than litigating. And you can make a factual argument, but it doesn’t matter. And sometimes, in the legislative process, it’s not the message as much as who the messenger is. And we, you know, were very thoughtful about that. You know, for instance, we had a very strong component of our coalition — you know, New Hampshire has a libertarian streak. There are people in my state, there are people on the legislature, who don’t trust the government to collect taxes or plow snow. And so the question then for them is, if you don’t trust the government to collect taxes, or plow snow, why do you trust it to have the power to kill prisoners? And the answer comes back quickly said, well, they don’t. So naturally, they would oppose it. People who are conservative, who have the seamless garment perspective on life issues — that they believe in life, you know, womb to tomb, that life is sacred — and they join in, you know, from their values, in opposition to the death penalty. What I find, oftentimes, is there is no one argument that carries the day, there is no one person who leads the charge, that it’s, it’s a combination of things and we need all of those arguments. Now, where you put the emphasis, you want to make sure that, you know, some voices are more powerful, but they can drown out other voices that are actually meant to be heard, meant to be heard or more impactful to be heard. And, and like everything else, you want to think about who your audience is to whom you’re going to speak, and it’s entirely different speaking to an audience of, you know, the general population than it is to a, you know, a small group of people who have a particular value set or concerns.

Robert Dunham 21:57

For years, the death penalty was considered a wedge issue and a very partisan issue. But the coalition that you put together was highly bipartisan, and it wasn’t just Democrats and Republicans — it ran the entire political spectrum. It’s, I think it’s kind of ironic that what used to be one of the most divisive issues — in a time when there was less political contentiousness — has now become an issue that is attracting cooperation in a period in which we have much more partisanship than we’ve had in a long time. How did you keep this coalition together or put this coalition together, when in the rest of the political world, things appear to be getting much more partisan?

Rep Renny Cushing 22:46

Well, I think in part of it, yeah. You know, I draw on my own New Hampshire experience, and that — I remember in 1992, when there was a guy, a Governor from Arkansas, who was in Claremont, New Hampshire, running for president United States, and in a very dramatic moment had to leave the campaign trail to go back to his state capital to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged human being named Ricky Ray Rector, who was so hurt, this person that he saved his pudding for after his execution. And that was, you know, Bill Clinton. And I remember, as someone who’s, you (unclear), a Democrat, many people applauding that, thinking that was a smart political move that, that would take place. And he went on to become president and, you know, sponsored the greatest expansion of the death penalty at the federal level. And that was part of the political climate, that both parties, at one point, were almost competing with each other to see who could be more, you know, more aggressive about the death penalty. And in my own state of New Hampshire, I know that, you know, the first time we abolished the death penalty was in the year 2000 — we voted to abolish it. When a you know, a Republican House voted to repeal the death penalty, and it was a Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen, now US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who vetoed the death penalty. But what worked from the outset — there were people from both parties who are in the minority, but who had their own reasons for opposing capital punishment. And I think in New Hampshire, I will tell you, there was frustrations going back and forth, when, for years, we would have discussions on a debate on the floor of the of the House about the death penalty and a Republican member of the House would get up and read verbatim, the veto message of the former Democratic governor on the death penalty. And that, that in a way, you know, for better or worse, that made it clear that this was not a partisan issue. And we, I think we were pretty disciplined about keeping it that way. And to the extent that you do single issue, you know, politics and organizing, the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty was pretty clear that, you know, we, when we’re in the room talking about the death penalty, we weren’t talking about taxes, we weren’t talking about the environment, we weren’t talking about abortion, we weren’t, you know, talking about anything except the death penalty. And we all agreed that this is a place that we could find common ground. And it was through finding that common ground and understanding that, 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 last month in overcoming the Governor’s veto and ending the death penalty in New Hampshire, 185 years after Governor Badger first asked us to do so.

Robert Dunham 25:54

Do you think that the kind of cooperation and search for common ground that you found with this issue are going to carry over to other legislative issues?

Rep Renny Cushing 26:09

Well, I think it’s certainly, you know, is a component of criminal justice reform, which is what the death penalty is. I see that, I do see that happening. You know, I think there’s a certain readiness now to move beyond, you know, a couple of generations of being tough on crime, to wanting to be smart on crime. And to take a look at some of the facts that you know — apart from individuals, just the bare facts — that you look at the over-incarceration we have here in our country, and the squandering of resources. I’ll just give you an example in the state of New Hampshire because I’m chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. I live in a state where we spend 80 million dollars a year, of state dollars on our state university system, and 120 million dollars on our Department of Corrections. And that’s just not a sustainable model for anybody to be spending, you know, half more on jail cells, than you do on college classrooms.

Robert Dunham 27:22

Folks in other states have said that, once the death penalty was repealed, it kind of took the elephant out of the room and folks were able to form additional coalitions in trying to bring about other types of criminal justice reform. Do you think that with the death penalty out of the way in New Hampshire, that some of the opponents of death penalty abolition will, will be more willing to come to the table on other reforms?

Rep Renny Cushing 27:52

I think probably as a general matter. But I also think that there can be criminal justice reform that does take place, you know, parallel to action on the death penalty. That’s just been, you know, part of my experience. You know, the entire time I’ve been doing anti-death penalty work, I’ve also been doing victim’s work. And that’s, what my great expectation is, just as I, I look to my allies, you know, who do criminal justice reform, I’m looking to them to help do policies that meet the real needs of victims. And that sometimes, that’s been kind of a rough road for me personally. I remember, you know, situation where we had a, there was legislation that I had sponsored and supported to establish a cold case homicide unit, and support a cold case homicide unit, because, you know, I know that, that for everyone, the worst murder is the one of their own loved ones. And I’ve seen where resources get devoted toward trying to put like, somebody to death and at the same time, homicides are ignored. And for people who are wondering why the state spends all this money to try to kill one person and won’t bother to try and solve the murder of their father or their loved one, it can be very painful. And testifying on a bill was a friend of mine, whose father was murdered, and it was a cold case homicide. And this person also was, you know, a member of the anti-death penalty coalition. And after she got done testifying on this, you know, an ally, an offender advocate, got up and testified against the bill that like they’d somehow they didn’t like they, they, they were so fearful of spending money on a program for victims thinking that it might adversely affect their, the interests of their, you know, the people for whom they advocate as, as offender advocates. And I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. I don’t think that, you know, we, I think — just as I oppose the death penalty for people, I want people who commit crimes to be held accountable. I want the public to be protected. And we can do that without capital punishment. And it’s really important for, for the abolition movement to find in a principled way opportunities to support victims. And not so much because you want them as allies to repeal the death penalty, but because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a necessary step if we’re going to build the beloved community to embrace victims.

Robert Dunham 30:55

Knowing that none of us has a crystal ball on issues like this, I’m going to I ask you this anyway. What do you think the future holds for the death penalty in the United States?

Rep Renny Cushing 31:07

I think the future is that the death penalty is gonna go away. It’s gonna go the way of slavery. It’s gonna go the way of chattel slavery, of disenfranchisement of women, of segregation. It’s a, it’s a social evil that will be eliminated.

Robert Dunham 31:25

Well, this was a really interesting discussion. Thank you, Representative Cushing for speaking with us today.

Rep Renny Cushing 31:29

Well, thank you for having me. And thank you for the, thank you for your work in informing this country about the death penalty. It’s really important.

Robert Dunham 31:39

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