May 5, 2005 Black lawmakers rip Romney's death penalty By Jeremy Schwab As he touted his new "scientific" death penalty bill at the State House last week, Governor Mitt Romney assured reporters that the bill would virtually eliminate the possibility of wrongful convictions. "This is a bill which in the realm of reality is foolproof," he said. "Of course, there are always extreme circumstances one could envision." Romney did not elaborate on what "extreme circumstances" might cause sentencing error, but he cited the safeguards built into his bill. The bill calls for concrete evidence such as DNA in order to sentence someone to death and a standard of "no doubt" instead of "beyond a reasonable doubt" for a jury to sentence a defendant. It also calls for certified capital case lawyers to represent defendants. Under the bill, the death penalty could apply to those convicted for acts of terrorism, multiple murders or murders involving torture. The bill would allow the death penalty in cases of murder of an attorney, law enforcement officer, judge or juror for the purpose of obstructing an ongoing criminal investigation. The state's Supreme Judicial Court abolished the death penalty in 1984. Many African Americans oppose the death penalty, and critics note that capital punishment has disproportionately been used to execute black men. When asked by reporters how his bill would prevent ethnic or racial bias in sentencing, Romney again cited some of the bills' safeguards. "It applies to a very narrow set of crimes," he said. "Perhaps you would only have one or two [cases] in a year. There is a higher standard of counsel. There would have to be physical forensic evidence linking them with the crime." But juries, police officers and others who would investigate, handle and weigh evidence in capital cases are still human and have human failings such as racial prejudice, said Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. "I don't believe it is possible to create an error-proof death penalty, because mistakes people make have a lot to do with human emotion," she said. "Police are human. People who promulgate and draft our criminal justice laws are human. People who witness crimes on the street are all human beings who are impacted by the totality of stereotypical messages and everything we see and hear that suggests black and brown people have this extraordinary propensity to criminal behavior to the exclusion of all others." State Rep. Gloria Fox, who like Wilkerson and other black legislators opposes Romney's proposal, also expressed concerns about the impartiality of juries, which would play a significant role in Romney's proposed death-penalty process given the "no doubt" requirement. "You are going to provide [defendants] with good lawyers for their defense, but they are going to likely have an all-white jury," she said. Romney asserted that instituting the death penalty for certain crimes would act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. "I hope people would have a higher degree of concern about taking the life of a judge," he said. "I hope it would have a deterrent effect." But opponents questioned the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent. "[Romney] hasn't been able to provide any statistics that in states that have the death penalty it makes a difference," said Fox. "People who have testified before our Department of Corrections hearings say it is just the opposite. Most crimes are crimes of passion, and not pre-meditated." Legislators pointed out other perceived holes in Romney's bill. Those convicted of the same crime under Romney's bill could face different penalties depending on whether there is forensic evidence that meets the standards of the bill, noted Wilkerson. "DNA-related murders only make up a small percentage of murders," she said. "I can't imagine the governor is suggesting we have different penalties for people who leave DNA at the scene as opposed to those who don't." Rep. Byron Rushing said the bill would misdirect resources that could be used in other public safety areas. "Even for the people who support the death penalty, the question is why would you spend all this time and energy for the small number of people who could be prosecuted in the law," he said. Democratic legislators say they do not believe Romney's bill will pass. A measure to reinstate capital punishment failed in the House in 2001 by 34 votes. Romney's proposal comes as he is rumored to be considering a run for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. "There's no doubt in my mind this is a grandstand play to give himself more momentum for a run for president," said Fox. "There hasn't been an outcry for the death penalty in Massachusetts."