Death Penalty Doubts

After Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Bud Welch, who lost his daughter in the explosion, wrote in Time magazine that he didn't oppose the death penalty for Mr. McVeigh - at first. "But, as time has gone on, I've tried to think this out for myself.... There's been enough bloodshed.... To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn't really help anyone in the healing process."

The majority of Americans don't share Mr. Welch's opposition to the death penalty. Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 417 death row inmates have been executed. Thirty-eight states now allow the death penalty. Colorado recently held its first execution in over 30 years, and a number of other states - including Connecticut, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Ohio - are poised to do the same next year.

Massachusetts, however, will not be joining that list - though it came close. One lawmaker, state Rep. John Slattery switched his vote to a "no" just as a death penalty bill was about to pass on Beacon Hill. That was enough to kill the legislation, at least for now.

Mr. Slattery's motivation bears examination. He said the murder conviction of Louise Woodward, the 19-year-old British au pair accused of killing a baby in her care, swayed him. Ms. Woodward's conviction was later reduced to manslaughter by the judge, and she was never in danger of the death penalty. But Slattery said the trial made him freshly aware of how mistakes can be made in the justice process - by prosecutors, judges, and juries.

Indeed they can, and that's one enduring argument against a penalty that allows for no later adjustment in the scales of justice. There are others, including the high costs of death rows, the disproportionate numbers of blacks executed, and the scant evidence that executions deter crime. And there's Mr. Welch's reason.

No one would argue that the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing, or of the Unabomber murders, or of dozens of other heinous crimes don't deserve severe punishment. That's why we have life sentences without parole. But vengeance and killing, sanctioned by the state, don't reach for a higher sense of justice and healing. Just the opposite.

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