Death penalty legislation on governor’s agenda

Gov. Mitt Romney presented to the public Sept. 23 members of a panel of scientific and legal experts that he commissioned to draft a proposal to reinstate the death penalty in the Commonwealth.

The task of the Governor’s Council on Capital Punishment will not be to decide whether or not the death penalty should exist in Massachusetts, but to detail how a capital punishment statute would function in the state.

Gov. Romney, who publicly supports the death penalty, said the 11-member panel will use expertise in forensic science and law “to design death penalty legislation that meets the highest evidentiary standards.”

The governor went on to say that appointees have not been subject to a litmus test because it will be the legislature that ultimately decides whether the death penalty will be reinstated in Massachusetts.

He claimed that the council is different than any other formed in the past to examine the issue, because its “primary focus is on assuring that the latest advances in science and technology are applied to future death penalty cases.”

"This is a new kind of death penalty bill that we intend to fashion," the governor continued. "One that puts science above all other considerations, ahead of eye witness testimony, ahead of confessions."

Gov. Romney has asked the panel to devise a bill that assures that only those “we are highly confident, 100 percent certain” of guilt, will be executed. The bill will also be narrowly applicable—mass murders resulting from a terrorist attack, homicide with the purpose to undermine justice, ie. killing of a judge, prosecutor, witness, law enforcement agent and in cases where the most heinous, violent crimes have been committed.

"We believe that a carefully crafted death penalty law--one that is narrowly applied and relies on the highest standard of proof--will help to deter some of the increasingly brutal violence in our society," said Gov. Romney. "Strides have been made in medical and forensic science... that can allow us to produce a standard of evidence which assures that only the guilty are punished with the ultimate high standard of punishment."

According to Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, the council will meet frequently through 2004 and a bill will be filed some time next year.

Sitting on the panel are: Prof. Joseph Hoffman, co-chair of the commission and professor of law at Indiana University; Dr. Frederick Beiber, co-chair of the commission and medical geneticist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Judge Robert Barton, retired Superior Court judge; Attorney Ralph Boyd Jr., partner with Alston & Bird LLP in D.C.; District Attorney of the Plymouth County Timothy Cruz; Donald Haves Jr. forensic scientist and director of the Boston Police Department Crime Lab; Dr. Henry Lee, one of the world’s foremost forensic scientist who testified in the O.J. Simpson trial; Attorney Henry Moniz, partner at Brigham McCutcheon LLP; Kathleen O’Toole, president and founder of O’Toole Associates an international consulting firm; Dr. Carl Selavka, forensic scientist and director of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab; and Attorney Michael Sullivan, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

Support for the death penalty in Massachusetts peaked in the Legislature after the 1997 murder of 10-year old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge. In recent years, support has declined. The past four Republican governors have tried and failed to reinstate the death penalty.

Massachusetts, which banned the death penalty in 1984, is only one of 12 states without capital punishment. In recent years, federal prosecutors have asked that the death penalty be considered for several Massachusetts murders, most recently in the case of Gary Lee Sampson.

Gerry D’Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), attended the press conference. While he acknowledged that Gov. Romney is taking a new, “much more sophisticated approach,” he does not feel that valid reasons exist for reinstating capital punishment.

"The governor thinks it's an issue that the public might want to look at again. He supports capital punishment and wants to see if there is a venue for him to push that issue," said D'Avolio. "We [MCC and the Church] happen to disagree with him. He feels very strongly on capital punishment and supports it, and this is an avenue to maybe ease the issue into the legislature through this council."

The Church, D’Avolio noted, has always taken a clear stance on capital punishment and MCC plans to defend that position.

In terms of the establishment of the council, “we will just wait and see and evaluate what comes out of that council, but I don’t envision any changes. The Church has been very consistent and strong on this issue for many years now,” stated D’Avolio.

The Church’s position on the death penalty has been greatly developed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical on life, Evagelium Vitae. The pope has written that “The nature and extent of punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words, where it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

The bishops of Massachusetts have spoken out against the death penalty since 1980. A statement they issued in 1999 called the death penalty “simply wrong.”

"It solves no problem. It renders us evermore callous as a society to human life. It encourages in us a mentality of vengeance and revenge," the statement reads. "Yet no amount of revenge can bring back a loved one. Capital punishment does not provide genuine solace to those burdened by the loss of murdered loved ones."

That same year, then-Bishop Seán O’Malley of Fall River, dedicated a pastoral letter to the subject. In it he called for the abolition of the death penalty in order to promote a “more just society” and to find “real solutions to alleviate crime and violence.”

"Justice is not revenge. Killing murderers does not deter murders, but, rather, promotes an attitude that life is cheap and that when we have the power it is all right to kill," says Archbishop O'Malley in his pastoral. "State-sponsored violence will not promote a new respect for life, but only serve to erode reverence for life even more."

The question of whether to reinstate the death penalty is complex, stated D’Avolio, and an answer will not be found by passing a bill that ensures it is used in a small number of cases.

"It's much more complicated... It's a moral question for some, a conscience question for some," said D'Avolio. "It's another life and a perpetuation of violence when you take another one's life. It's not as simple as finding clear proof of a person's guilt. It's much more in depth than that."

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