New Fervor For Death Penalty

Move to reinstate capital punishment in Massachusetts shows how debate has shifted.

The message came in a roar: ENOUGH.

Massachusetts legislators heard it loud and clear - and responded to angry citizens by voting last week to reinstate the death penalty. Although the vote was driven by outrage over recent well-publicized local murders - including the rape and killing of a young boy - the Bay State's decision was also the latest example of how much the debate over capital punishment has changed nationwide in recent years.

A discussion once marked by questions of deterrence and legal issues has given way to an often emotional dialogue. Fueled by public frustration with crime and a growing victims' rights movement, the death-penalty debate increasingly is framed in terms of vengeance, moral justice, and "a life for a life."

And many supporters have no qualms about casting it in such a light. "I believe the response to violent crime is really a gut response," says Dudley Sharp of Justice for All, a Texas victims' rights group that supports capital punishment.

The tenor of discussion in America has changed, agrees death-penalty opponent Richard Dieter. "A lot of it is anger. People hear a lot about crime through the media, so that even if it's not happening in their own neighborhood, they still hear about a child who's been kidnapped and murdered in California, and it feels like it's in their own backyard," says the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization critical of the way the death penalty is applied.

"Feelings of revenge are nothing new," he says. "It's just that we used to allow the [criminal justice] system to develop independent of those feelings."

Victims' rights activists say the death penalty is one step in bringing into balance a system that has tilted in favor of criminals. In their quest for justice, they have pushed for the right of victims' survivors to make personal impact statements at sentencing for murder cases (and other crimes), and for the right of families of murder victims to witness executions (which 16 states now allow).

"When you have to look a victim's survivor in the face, you have to realize the enormity of the evil committed by the person who killed their loved one," says Mr. Sharp. "Society's moral response to any particular evil is often reflected in legislation," he says "and that's what happened in Massachusetts."

Roots of public outcry

Last week's vote was surrounded by a tumultuous public outcry, led by the parents of Jeffrey Curley, a boy whose recent rape and murder received intense press coverage. Although Massachusetts voters have tried to force the state to reinstate the death penalty in the past, legislators have always blocked it - and, in fact, last week's vote in the House of Representatives was razor thin: 81 to 79. (The bill must still be reconciled with similar legislation passed by the state Senate, and then signed by acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R), who actively campaigned for the measure, before becoming law).

Adoption of the law by Massachusetts, long considered a fount of liberalism, would leave only 11 states and the District of Columbia without death-penalty statutes (see map). Observers say that's unlikely to change in the near future. But with a total of 3,269 people on death row nationwide and an average of six executions a month so far this year - a 40-year high - they worry about the issues that get lost in emotional debates.

This includes the argument that many poor defendants who are sentenced to death have not been able to afford skilled legal representation, and that while 419 executions have been carried out in the past 20 years, another 73 individuals on death row have been found not guilty of the crimes that put them there and have been released.

Many lawmakers here admitted being moved by the public's anger, expressed in words such as those by one woman who told a local reporter that death by lethal injection, which the state ultimately approved, was too kind. "I want stoning, hanging, blowing their brains out," she said. A letter writer to the Boston Globe dismissed concerns that there is little evidence to support the death penalty as a deterrent to would-be murderers and argued that revenge is "the only reason" for capital punishment, and that without it, "there is no justice."

State Representative Donna Cuomo (R), whose brother was murdered in 1974, had been a death-penalty opponent, but became a key vote for the legislation last week.

"I've always been agonizing over it," she says. "But I really just feel that you can't continually deny the people. If you're supposed to represent the people, how can you completely ignore their opinion?"

Indeed, polls show that Massachusetts residents, like those nationwide, support capital punishment by roughly a 75 percent margin, though that number drops when people are presented with the option of life without parole.

Where's the beef?

But longtime opponents here, like Democratic Representative Jay Kaufman, are worried by the way emotions drove the debate. Overlooked in the arguments, he says, is the fact that Massachusetts already has an automatic life-without-parole sentence for first-degree murderers. He also points to research showing implementation of the death penalty is expected to be costly, as high as $60 million in its first year, in added legal costs for capital cases.

"There was just a feeling of 'Don't hit me with any arguments, don't force me to think,' " he says. "I can't tell you the number of people who didn't even want to bother with making an argument. It was just, 'Enough!' "

Others here and elsewhere, however, see plenty of reasons - including moral ones - for the ultimate sanction.

"Justice requires that punishment fits the crime, and capital crimes justify capital punishment," says Gret Koukl, president of Stand to Reason, a California-based religious and education group.

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