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Massachusetts Governor Considers Reinstating Capital Punishment

By Pam Belluck

The New York Times -- BOSTON

Bucking the national pattern of states and juries seeking to rein in the use of the death penalty, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said on Monday that he had assembled a committee of experts to help him draft a law that would institute capital punishment in Massachusetts.

The governor and the lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, said in interviews that the committee, comprised of legal and forensic experts from Massachusetts and elsewhere, would be asked to help draft legislation that would avoid the mistakes that have led, in several states, to the convictions of people later found to be innocent.

“I really am looking for a standard of certainty,” said Romney. “That’s why I’ve asked this panel of experts to determine if a legal and forensic standard can be crafted to assure us that us that only the guilty will suffer the death penalty. I believe it can be.”

Massachusetts is one of 12 states that does not have the death penalty, having abolished capital punishment in 1984. The state has not executed anyone since 1947.

A succession of governors over the last 12 years, all Republican like Romney, have tried to reinstate capital punishment, and the closest the state came was in 1997, when, fueled by outrage over the rape and murder of a 10-year-old boy, a death penalty bill failed on a tie vote in the state House of Representatives.

Since then, sentiment against the death penalty has grown in the Legislature, with the last bill losing in 2001 by 34 votes in the House. These days, even death penalty proponents in the Legislature say they are solidly outnumbered by opponents.

In an interview, Healey, who is a criminologist, acknowledged that much of the sentiment among legislators here and across the country was wariness toward capital punishment.

“The tide really has turned somewhat,” Healey said. “Because of increasing forensic evidence and exonerations of inmates, people are really not satisfied with the quality of death penalty legislation. Even some proponents of the death penalty are concerned about proposing legislation -- or using existing legislation.”

But, she said, “it is very timely to be talking about how to recraft the death penalty at a time when flaws in existing legislation are being revealed so broadly. We need to reconsider whether or not death penalty legislation is viable, and the governor and I believe it is viable and necessary.”

Experts on the death penalty said the governor’s desire to re-establish capital punishment in Massachusetts appeared to be swimming against the national tide. In 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and this year granted clemency or a shortened sentence to all 167 inmates on death row. And as more than 100 people on death rows have been exonerated, other states have abridged or considered abridging the use of the death penalty.

In addition, juries in both state and federal cases have become increasingly reluctant to impose the death penalty. Prosecutors in many states have hesitated to seek capital punishment because of the long odds of getting a death sentence and the high cost of trying. In 2001, the number of people on death row dropped for the first time in a decade.