Death penalty opponents claim victory in Massachusetts House

“This has come up probably every session since I’ve been here,” said Amherst State Representative Ellen Story, who opposes the death penalty and has been serving as representative since 1992.

In 1997, the House deadlocked over the issue, resulting in a one-vote decision to keep the death penalty out of Massachusetts. That vote was taken in the wake of the murder of a 10-year-old boy in Cambridge.

During the 1997 vote, Story said that the gallery and chambers were full of spectators. By contrast, Story said, “Yesterday, the gallery was practically empty.”

Monday’s legislative debate took three hours but, according to Story, “The outcome was clear before it began.”

“People who don’t want the death penalty restored, like myself, are very relieved,” added Story.

“The New Hampshire legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. Illinois has a moratorium on the death penalty,” said Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat. “There’s growing evidence of second thoughts-let’s say second thoughts-about the death penalty.”

State Representative Reed Hillman, whose district includes Belchertown and who served on the police force for 25 years, has witnessed the impact that violent crime has had on the communities. “I’ve seen what it does to the families.”

“I think that there are some predators who are so dangerous that the only way a society can reasonably deal with them is with capital punishment,” added Hillman. There are “those [murderers] who are so irredeemable, so brutal.”

“With the death penalty, the facts are all on our side,” said Norma Shapiro, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization which opposes the death penalty. “It was a huge lobbying effort.”

According to Shapiro, the increase in opposition to the death penalty is a result of “the vast number of mistakes that are made in the system-if you can call it a system.”

The most severe punishment in Massachusetts is life in prison without parole.

“That protects the public safety just as well as [the death penalty],” said Shapiro.

“It makes perfect sense that Massachusetts would [vote down the bill],” said Sarat. “They’re following the national trend.”

Hillman said that a problem with life imprisonment is that “there’s any of a number of things that would allow for someone to be released,” mentioning the recent escapes by seven Texas inmates along with the recent presidential pardons.

“You have a president who pardoned a bunch of Puerto Rican terrorists,” added Hillman. “You can have a Mike Dukakis come in … give them a work release, give them a pardon.”

Since Governor A. Paul Cellucci entered office in 1998, he has been pushing to reinstate the death penalty, although some lawmakers noted that this year he did not lobby as hard as he had in the past.

“That’s because he knew he was going to lose,” said Story. “He was missing in action.”

Cellucci is expected to be confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, whereupon Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift will assume the top state post.

“[Swift] used to be against the death penalty but she switched,” said Story.

Currently 38 states employ capital punishment and it is also available in federal criminal trials. The last time Massachusetts executed a prisoner was in 1947.

“Anytime there is a horrible murder, there is a danger that people will be calling for the death penalty again,” said Shapiro, who added that instead of being “tough on crime,” people should be “smart on crime.”