Postponed execution tests a region's views on crime

The death penalty was to be used this week in Connecticut - and New England - for the first time since 1960.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Boston - A federal judge in Connecticut said Monday he will order a postponement of the execution of serial killer Michael Ross, who had been scheduled to be put to death at 2:01 a.m. Jan. 26.

It would have marked the first use of the death penalty in New England in 45 years - and has revived debate over capital punishment in a region where it runs against the political grain.

Nearly 950 people have been put to death since capital punishment was reinstated in this country in 1976, but none in states north or east of Pennsylvania.

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That could change with Mr. Ross, whose 1980s killing spree in Connecticut and New York terrified an entire region. He killed eight young women in all, raping most of them. He faces death by lethal injection for four of those murders. Ross himself decided not to appeal, but public defenders and opponents of the death penalty, as well as Ross's father had tried to intervene, arguing that he cannot make rational decisions regarding his execution.

Monday's hearing was at the request of the state's Division of Public Defenders Services. Judge Robert Chatigny said he wanted to hear more evidence about Ross's mental capacity.

His scheduled execution had caused a firestorm in a state where the death penalty hasn't been used since 1960. If the execution does finally go forward, some observers say the event would reverberate across the region.

"Will it start an avalanche in New England? No. Will it open the door to make it thinkable again? Yes," says Robert Blecker, a professor of law at New York Law School and a supporter of the death penalty for the most vicious offenders. "It is already on the mind in Massachusetts. It makes it more imaginable. It makes it real again."

New England's resistance to the death penalty stems in part from having the country's lowest murder rate, says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Experts also cite its liberalism overall and the impact of its renowned universities.

Yet some in Connecticut worry that with this execution, that distinction would no longer hold as firmly. "It can no longer call itself an enlightened state," says Paula Montonye, a lawyer who represents some of the state's death row inmates. The execution "is a stamp of approval on killing. It creates an atmosphere of death. And life begets life; death begets death."

In Connecticut, 70 percent favor the death penalty for Ross, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. For some death penalty supporters, that illustrates that a 45-year lapse since the last execution may be too long a period. "I do not understand why the state of Connecticut is so long in providing the rule of law," says Dianne Clements, the president of Justice For All, a Texas-based victim-advocacy group. "In a state with death penalty on the books, juries have found for death as punishment and yet there has been no execution in 40 years."

Romney prods for Bay State change

Within New England, it is Massachusetts that has been the most vigorous in pursuing a reinstatement of the death penalty. It was banned in the state in 1984. Legislation to reinstate it failed in a tie vote in 1997. Now Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is trying his hand at it. He formed a committee to explore a foolproof death penalty that would narrowly define the qualifiable crimes and require a standard of "no doubt" in assessing guilt using scientific evidence.

Yet despite Romney's moves and Ross's pending execution, the support for the death penalty has been waning nationally over the past several years. According to the Gallup Organization, 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty in 1994. That number dropped to 66 percent in 2004.

Experts say that the use of DNA, which has helped reverse many erroneous convictions, has made some Americans skeptical.

Today, only two of New England's six states even have the death penalty: Connecticut and New Hampshire. The other four - Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont - are among a dozen states nationwide without it.

For many New Englanders, capital punishment relates more to the era of witches being hanged than to the current day. New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939 and has no one on death row. Rhode Island's last execution was in 1845, Maine's in 1885, Massachusetts' in 1947, and Vermont's in 1954.

In contrast, Texas has executed 337 people since 1976, followed by Virginia at 94, and Oklahoma with 75, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Domino effect may be small

Connecticut's overwhelming support for putting Ross to death may reflect that residents want the worst possible punishment for a confessed serial killer - and in Connecticut that punishment is execution. That is appropriate punishment, says Mr. Blecker. "Ross represents the worst of the worst. If anyone deserves to die, he is among them."

After appealing his execution several times, Ross has resigned himself to the punishment. He has maintained that he believes in the long run his appeals will be unsuccessful and would like not to cause the family of the victims more pain.

Whether experts believe his assertion or not, some say it is one reason the execution probably would not have a domino effect in the region. For one thing, there are few people on death row in New England. And, says Dieter. "If people challenge a statute or their own convictions, that has nothing to do with someone who isn't challenging anything."

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