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Still wrong
Mitt Romney’s embrace of capital punishment — and Tom Reilly’s craven response — show why progressives must remain vigilant

WHEN GOVERNOR Mitt Romney filed legislation last week to bring back the death penalty, the progressive community reacted more with ennui than with revulsion. After all, Republican governors have been using capital punishment to score cheap political points for more than 14 years. Romney himself first unveiled his death-penalty plan about a year ago (see "Another Bright and Shining Lie," Editorial, May 7, 2004). It would be easy to dismiss the latest as an offensive but harmless publicity stunt aimed at boosting his nascent presidential campaign. No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947, and every effort to restore capital punishment in recent years has gone down to defeat.

But even if the Romney bill is a long shot, this is no time to be complacent. The death penalty is a leading issue in the culture war waged by the national Republican Party in order to divide the country. As with reproductive choice, gay rights, and stem-cell research, opposition to capital punishment is held up as evidence that progressives are elitists who are out of touch with American values. With Romney gearing up for a possible national run, his embrace of the death penalty is, for him, a can’t-lose issue: if the legislature refuses to go along, then he can make speeches lampooning the state he allegedly governs, as he has already done with gay marriage; and in the unlikely event that capital punishment becomes law, he can portray himself as a conquering hero.

Moreover, last week’s announcement demonstrated that Romney and his most prominent gubernatorial rival, Democratic attorney general Tom Reilly, may seek to outdo each other when it comes to political cravenness. Reilly, a former death-penalty opponent who became a supporter during the 1990s, announced last week that he opposed Romney’s bill — not on principle, but because the state is currently not investing enough money in the DNA-testing capabilities that the legislation would require. Then, when asked by the Boston Globe whether he would sign the bill if he were governor, Reilly replied, "Yeah, probably." It sounded for all the world as though the only reason Reilly could think of to oppose the bill was that it had been filed by his chief rival. Combined with his switch on same-sex marriage (he no longer opposes it, so at least that’s progress; but wait a bit, and he may switch again), Reilly comes across as someone who’ll say anything to get elected. If Romney seeks re-election in 2006 and if Reilly wins the Democratic nomination, the contest for governor will feature two major-party candidates who support capital punishment, bringing the death penalty closer to reality than it has been in many years.

The standoff between Romney and Reilly may lead progressives to look more closely at Deval Patrick, an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration who is running an intriguing outsider campaign for governor. Only Patrick made clear his opposition to capital punishment last week, saying, "The death penalty can never be made foolproof, it is not a deterrent, and the huge costs incurred in capital proceedings divert resources away from actually fighting and prosecuting crime." Combined with his staunch support for gay marriage and other progressive issues, as well as his refusal to join Romney and Reilly in pandering on taxes, Patrick may well be positioning himself as the most liberal Democrat in the race. (Secretary of State Bill Galvin, a more traditional Democrat who’s making headlines with his investigation of Gillette’s sellout to Procter & Gamble, is also said to be considering a run.)

Make no mistake: with a death-penalty bill in play on Beacon Hill, there is no guarantee that some horrific crime won’t be committed that would suddenly create a firestorm of public support. That happened most recently in 1997, following the brutal murder of Jeffrey Curley, a 10-year-old boy from Cambridge. The bill lost on a tie vote in the House; just one more vote, and it would have been sent to then-governor Paul Cellucci for his certain signature. Public opinion is easily manipulated in an emotionally charged political environment. And Romney’s deceptive claims that his bill virtually guarantees that an innocent person cannot be executed would only add to the appeal.

Despite Romney’s purring reassurances, his legislation is at least as problematic on the specifics as it is in its embrace of an outmoded and barbaric practice. Romney seeks to impose capital punishment only on the so-called worst of the worst — terrorists, those who kill law-enforcement officers, and those who commit multiple murders. He is also calling for a "no doubt" standard of proof in death-penalty cases, mainly by relying on DNA or other scientific evidence. In so doing, the governor has failed the standard of justice. First, he has elevated the value of some lives over others. Second, by deviating from our long-established system of asking juries to convict or acquit a defendant on the basis of whether they have any reasonable doubt, Romney would create the distinct possibility that someone could be executed not so much because of the awful nature of the crime but because of the quality of the evidence against him or her.

For many years now, capital punishment has been slowly fading from the national stage. During the 1990s, advances in DNA evidence demonstrated that it’s not unusual for people on death row to be innocent of the crimes of which they had been convicted. Locally, in Suffolk County alone, nine men convicted of serious violent crimes, including murder, have walked free since 1997 after newly discovered evidence revealed they were innocent. The death penalty is the one punishment that, once it’s carried out, cannot be revoked.

More important, capital punishment conflicts with the values of a civilized society. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters would-be murderers. All it does is coarsen the rest of us. Life in prison without the possibility of parole offers society the protection it needs from the most dangerous among us, and it can be accomplished without years’ worth of expensive appeals and the brutalizing nature of the final act.

The state does not kill people in Massachusetts. That’s one of the things that makes this a special place in which to live. Mitt Romney — and Tom Reilly, for that matter — should set aside their shameful posturing and show some respect for the people who elected them.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]phx.com

Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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