Death Penalty's Lessons

Two words sum up why it's wrong - 'falsely accused'

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Before Commonwealth v. Louise Woodward, the only Massachusetts case to attract as much worldwide attention was Commonwealth v. Sacco and Vanzetti. Who would have guessed that these cases would have found a place together in the history of Massachusetts' tug-of-war over the death penalty?

When Sacco and Vanzetti were about to be put to death for their alleged involvement in a holdup of a payroll truck, protests broke out in London, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Warsaw, and Bombay. The State House in Boston and Union Square in New York were the scenes of massive rallies. Still, despite the outcry - and substantial evidence that Saco and Vanzetti were not guilty - Massachusetts Gov. Alvan Fuller refused to commute the sentences. On Aug. 22, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted just a few feet from where Paul Revere began his midnight ride.

History has proven the protesters right. Sacco and Vanzetti were not guilty of the charges. Historians now believe they were charged because they were easy targets - Italian radicals and recent immigrants to the US. They were charged in the midst of a red scare that made the McCarthy era look like amateur hour. US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer wanted them, and all "reds," deported. His xenophobia was not lost on the jury that convicted Sacco and Vanzetti.

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For years, Sacco and Vanzetti stood as a reminder to many Massachusetts legislators that the death penalty is immoral, if only for one reason: Sometimes defendants are wrongly convicted. But last week, a Massachusetts lawmaker who cast the deciding vote against a death-penalty bill before the legislature cited the Woodward case as the reason.

Put aside the fact that state-authorized killing is immoral. Put aside the fact that states that have instituted the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without it. Put aside the fact that execution costs exceed the costs of incarceration for life. Put aside the fact that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent. Put aside the fact that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. (A 1990 study of 2,500 Georgia murder cases revealed that 22 percent of black defendants who murdered whites were sentenced to death, while 3 percent of whites who killed blacks received death sentences.)

Put aside, too, the fact that the death penalty has been applied almost exclusively to the poor. Put aside the fact that, according to an American Bar Association study, many on death row are either illiterate, retarded, or of borderline intelligence. Put aside the fact that the US is the only major country in the Western world that tolerates the death penalty, but also has the highest murder rate. Consider only that there is no way to give life back to a wrongly executed defendant.

There is no shortage of well-documented cases in Massachusetts and elsewhere where the state has taken the wrong life or has come perilously close to doing so. As a 1992 Northeastern University study revealed, more than 400 people have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes in the US since 1900. One is too many.

Massachusetts is home to Bobby Joe Leaster, a black man who served 15 years for a murder based on what the Commonwealth now concedes was the "erroneous" testimony of an eyewitness. In 1986 Mr. Leaster was exonerated and released.

Another Massachusetts defendant, Alphonso Pinckney, was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death in 1972, when the state had the death penalty. In 1973, the death penalty was struck down and Mr. Pinckney received a life sentence. In 1995, after 24 years in prison, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled he had not received a fair trial and vacated his sentence.

In 1989, Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife and then falsely identified a black man, WIlly Bennett, as the perpetrator. Imagine what would have happened to Mr. Bennett if Massachusetts had had the death penalty in 1990, and if Charles Stuart, rather than commit suicide, had continued to prey on the prejudices and fears of the public by fingering Bennett.

Last week, the Massachusetts legislature rejected the death penalty. Each year, the debate is the same, but this year it was particularly difficult. The legislature considered the bill under the watchful eye of the family and friends of a Cambridge child murdered last month. The public was horrified by this crime and others in the Boston area this year.

Many legislators were reluctant to reject pleas that they take swift action against the murderers. It was hard to rise above the rhetoric that first degree murderers in Massachusetts get released from prison. Yet, these legislators well know that every first degree murderer in Massachusetts serves a mandatory life sentence without parole.

Today, Massachusetts remains one of only 12 states without the death penalty. It also has one of the lowest murder rates in the country. Our representatives resisted the temptation to vent their anger and instead reflected on some lessons that we in Massachusetts know only too well. The rest of the country would be well served to do the same.

* Sigmund J. Roos is a Boston attorney who has been fighting the death penalty since he was a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., in 1973.

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