Romney, Detractors Square Off over
"Gold Standard" Death Bill
By Jim O’Sullivan for the State House News Service
Governor Mitt Romney argued
Thursday for a death penalty bill he said could serve as a national model,
narrowing the language in previous bills to confine capital cases to a
“no doubt” standard for specific types of murder, with an
emphasis on scientific evidence that would eliminate uncertainty.
“This is as foolproof
a death penalty as exists and you will not have false convictions, false
convictions and false executions under this. This won’t happen,”
Romney said during a day of testimony on whether or not to restore capital
punishment in Massachusetts.
“I would have complete
confidence in any judgments that resulted following the enactment of this
legislation,” Romney said, although he said he could not offer a
“100 percent guarantee” that no wrongful executions would
ever take place under such a law.
Death penalty opponents said
the bill contains technical flaws that could lead to procedural problems,
would fail to act as a deterrent to would-be murderers, and does not address
racial and economic disparities in the application of death sentences.
“There is no way that
you can scientifically apply the death penalty,” said former Gov.
Michael Dukakis during his testimony before the joint Judiciary Committee.
“What bothers me about this is in my judgment it’s a diversion
from the real problems … in the criminal justice system and law
enforcement,” Dukakis said. He cited to statistics revealing that,
of the 400 inmates released each month in the City of Boston, 60 percent
lack post-incarceration supervision. He said the administration should
devote more resources to local aid, which helps fund municipalities’
Romney’s proposal, which
skeptics say is spurred in part by his interest in burnishing the conservative
bona fides he would need in a bid for national office, would call for
the death penalty only in cases of terrorism, the killing of law enforcement
personnel, multiple murders, or slayings that involved torture. A committee
of nationally recognized experts advised Romney in designing the measure,
and he insisted it would lead to a “high 99.9 percent” guarantee
that no innocent convicts would be executed.
The governor admitted that lawmakers
in the traditionally liberal state Legislature, where capital punishment
proponents were defeated in 2001 by a wide margin after losing by a single
vote in 1997, were unlikely to back his plan.
“I don’t have any
particular reason to think there’s more support for death penalty
legislation in Massachusetts today than there was in the past,”
Romney told reporters following his testimony. “I made a promise
that we’d put forward a very solid death penalty bill. This death
penalty bill is the best in the nation. This is the model, the gold standard,
if you’re going to consider the ultimate punishment. And it’s
my hope that legislators will look at this in that light and say, ‘You
know what, the people of Massachusetts deserve to have this level of protection.’
And I’m going to fight for it and hopefully people will react on
Romney conceded that many people
oppose capital punishment on principle, and said he had “no argument”
Massachusetts abolished the
death penalty in 1984, making it one of 12 states without capital punishment.
But public sentiment appears to side with Romney; a May News Service poll
showed 65 percent in favor of the measure, with 33 percent opposed. In
2003, a six-hour hearing drew only testimony in opposition.
One opponent in Gardner Auditorium to testify Thursday, where the crowd
and testifiers were largely anti-death penalty, was David Kaczynski, who
turned in his brother the Unabomber in 1996 after three killings and 23
bombings. Kaczynski said people could be discouraged from telling police
about family members they thought may be guilty but did not want to see
“It might deter family
members from coming forward and helping these problems to be solved,”
Kaczynski said, adding that family members of both perpetrators and victims
endure years of prolonged appeals and procedures in capital punishment
to create a foolproof criminal justice system that has seen so many exonerations
of innocent people,” Kaczynski said, speaking with reporters before
his testimony. “No one yet has found a system that can be applied
evenly and fairly. Bias, racial discrimination, mental illness all affect
who gets the death penalty, who doesn’t.”
Gubernatorial candidate Deval
Patrick testified in opposition as well, citing his experience as an attorney
for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s death penalty project in the
1980s. Patrick helped argue successfully for a stay of execution for a
man who had already been served his last meal. A sworn statement later
in the prosecutor’s file positively identified another man as the
perpetrator, Patrick said.