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Fighting death

For the third time in five years, the Massachusetts House of Representatives will vote on a death-penalty bill filed by Governor Paul Cellucci. It’s expected to fail, as both such proposals did the previous two times our elected representatives voted on this barbaric measure. To borrow a favorite phrase of the law-and-order lobby: three strikes and you’re out. Let’s hope that Tuesday — when the House is expected to debate and vote on the death-penalty bill — will be the last time our politicians seriously consider enacting cruelty as law.

The state has not put anyone to death since 1947, when Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson, both convicted of murdering Robert William, were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison. Voters passed a ballot initiative reinstituting the death penalty in 1982, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled the measure unconstitutional two years later. A death-penalty bill filed in 1997 was the closest Bay State pols have come since that ruling to authorizing executions in Massachusetts. Debated in the wake of a gruesome crime that seemed to cry out for capital punishment — a 10-year-old Cambridge boy was sexually tormented by two neighborhood thugs before they killed him — the measure was expected to squeak through. But it failed — by just one vote — when John Slattery, a state representative from Peabody, had a change of heart at the last minute. Cellucci submitted another death-penalty bill to the legislature in 1999. While there was a lot of support for the measure, the issue lacked the drama of its previous debate, and lost by seven votes.

This time around, by contrast, supporters for the bill are clearly in the minority. A survey by the Associated Press shows that a minimum of 85 House members out of 160 oppose the death penalty. Even House minority leader Fran Marini, an ardent death-penalty proponent, acknowledges that it doesn’t have a chance of gaining enough votes, telling the Boston Herald: “It’s not going to pass this session.”

But if it’s important for proponents of the death penalty to keep bringing it up, it’s even more important for those of us who oppose the measure to make our feelings known. Even when we know we’re not going to lose.

There’s no getting around the fact that the death penalty violates our constitutional guarantee to equal protection and due process. Study after study shows that African-American and Latino defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants who commit similar crimes — especially when the victim is white. As for claims that the death penalty serves as a deterrent, numerous studies also show that the crime rates of the 38 states with capital punishment are no lower than the 12 states without it. The reasons for this are obvious: in order for the death penalty to be an effective deterrent, its implementation would need to be swift and consistent. But years go by between the time a crime is committed and the time a convict is executed. And imposition of the death penalty is anything but consistent — as statistics showing the racial imbalance of its implementation reveal.

More disturbing, there’s simply no way to be sure that everyone sentenced to death is actually guilty of the crimes of which he or she has been convicted. As hard as our judges, juries, and attorneys labor to do the right thing, our criminal-justice system — like our public schools, our human-services agencies, our public-works projects — is a flawed enterprise. Illinois governor George Ryan made headlines last year when he imposed a moratorium on that state’s death penalty. Since 1987, Illinois has released 13 death-row inmates because facts raised after trial have proved their innocence — not that they were found guilty on a technicality, but that they were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of committing. What’s particularly disturbing about these cases, however, is that police and prosecutors haven’t been the ones to shake the truth out. That task has been taken up by law professors, students, and activists. As Amnesty International’s Joshua Rubenstein puts it: “They were not released because of the system; they were released in spite of the system.”

Just this week, the US Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of a Tennessee death-row inmate who may very well be innocent in light of new ballistics evidence as well as the recanted testimony of an eyewitness. The court did not give a reason for its dismissal of the case.

Our state can do better than that. This latest attempt to bring back capital punishment must be defeated. Tell your state representative that you don’t want capital punishment in Massachusetts.

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Issue Date: March 1-8, 2001

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