Debate Over Death Penalty Heats Up in Massachusetts

Governor Weld calls for reinstatement of execution as 'only fitting punishment for certain types of murder'

MASSACHUSETTS lawmakers are bracing for a battle over capital punishment.

Republican Gov. William Weld is pushing legislation this year to reinstate the death penalty, and he has enough support in the legislature to make the opposition feel uneasy.

"I think that we who are opposed to the death penalty are going to have a full-scale fight on our hands," says state Rep. David Cohen (D).

According to Governor Weld, the measure is necessary to both protect society and deter murderers.

"I personally view the death penalty as an appropriate response to the most serious crimes against society," Weld said at a recent press conference, "and I think the majority of our citizens in this state rightly feel that this is the only fitting punishment for certain types of murder."

It is a contentious issue in a state that hasn't executed anyone since 1947. Massachusetts previously had a death-penalty law, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 1984.

In recent years, former Gov. Michael Dukakis fended off other attempts to restore the measure.

Opponents argue that capital punishment is costly, has no effect on the crime rate, and fails to solve the social problems that often lead to violence - such as poverty, domestic abuse, unemployment, and drugs. Supporters say it is the only way to send a strong message that senseless acts of violence will no longer be tolerated. Polls show strong support

Currently, 36 states have death-penalty statutes. And national polls show strong support for capital punishment. In a Gallup poll conducted last June, 76 percent of those surveyed favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

But critics point to the possibility of making a mistake and sentencing an innocent person.

"The greatest argument against death-penalty legislation is that innocent people are going to be convicted and that means innocent people are going to be killed," says John Roberts, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Weld administration officials argue, however, that the legislation is so narrowly crafted that it would be virtually impossible to wrongly sentence someone to death.

The bill, which was orginally filed late last year, involves a two-step trial process.

If, in the first step, a jury found a defendant guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder with malice aforethought, or first-degree murder involving extreme cruelty or atrocity, the prosecuting attorney, in the second step, could seek to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the murderer met at least one of a series of aggravating circumstances including:

* Murder of a police officer or other law-enforcement officer in the line of duty.

* Murder involving rape, robbery, home invasion, drug trafficking, multiple victims, or contract killing.

* Murder involving extreme cruelty or use of a destructive device such as a bomb or machine gun.

* Murder by a previously convicted murderer, or by someone already in jail; or murder committed in attempting to escape from prison.

* Murder of a judge, juror, or prosecuting attorney.

The idea of a two-step trial is unique to Massachusetts among states with capital punishment statutes, says Jordan St. John, press spokesman for Weld. Other states define certain crimes that may automatically lead to a capital punishment, he says. 'Toughest standard'

The proposed Massachusetts law may be "the toughest standard in the nation to achieve the death-penalty sentence," Mr. St. John says.

Criminologists say public support for the death penalty is due, in part, to increasing violence in US cities, particularly among young people.

According to James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, arrests for homicides nationwide increased 93 percent among juveniles from 1986 to 1990.

Mr. Fox says kids are "killing other kids for actually no reason whatsoever, perhaps for something as seemingly trivial as a leather jacket or a pair of sneakers."

Politicians respond to the problem by coming up with fast, get-tough measures, rather than long-term answers that will address such problems as poverty, unemployment, and lack of adult supervision, he says.

"The problem is that Americans are obsessed with easy solutions that won't work, like the death penalty," Fox says. "It may make people feel good; it may make politicians look good, but it won't do any good in bringing the crime rate down."

But according to Mr. St. John, reviving the death penalty here may, indeed, deter criminals. "I think it is arguable that it does have an effect," he says. "It certainly prevents someone from being a repeat murderer."

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