Cambridge Chronicle
  Thursday, December 1, 2005

  The Demise of the Capital Punishment Bill
  By Ian C. Pilarczyk / The Right View

  Last month the Massachusetts House rejected Governor Romney's plan 
  to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. As such, the 
  Commonwealth remains in a minority of states without an operative 
  death penalty: twelve states have no death penalty and two (New York 
  and Kansas) have had their death penalty statutes ruled 
  unconstitutional. Reinstating the death penalty, in disuse since 
  1947, had been one of the central features of Romney's 2002 campaign 
  platform. Even before the House vote he had announced this was no 
  longer one of his main priorities, saying that issues related to 
  healthcare and auto insurance reform, job creation, and education 
  were more pressing. While I am a Republican who is personally 
  against the death penalty, I nonetheless feel that Governor Romney 
  did the right thing in introducing this legislation.
       The House vote, and even Governor Romney's pragmatic reaction 
  to its inevitability, may well be indicative of eroding support for 
  capital punishment in the Commonwealth. In 1997 the House rejected 
  the reinstatement by a tie vote; in 2001 it failed by a 92-60 vote; 
  and this past week by a 100-53 vote. This could, however, also be 
  merely an anomaly of local politics, because it is interesting to 
  note that a 2003 Boston Globe poll showed support at 53% with 41% 
  opposed, while in 1996 the figures were 65% in favor and 26% 
  opposed. These statistics can be interpreted to show that there 
  remains considerable support for capital punishment in the 
  Commonwealth, but also that it appears to be decreasing over time. 
  And while it may be eroding at a faster level in our House than in 
  the electorate at large, I suspect much of the public support for 
  capital punishment is probably 'soft'. A particularly heinous crime 
  dominates the news and it drives our demand for retributive justice, 
  while a well-publicized miscarriage of justice reminds us of the 
  fallibility of the system. This latter awareness, fed as it is by a 
  stream of wrongful convictions across the country, is probably 
  continuing to permeate the public consciousness even while rates of 
  violent crime across the country decline. Regardless of 
  interpretation, the fact remains that a considerable segment of the 
  electorate supports capital punishment in some form.
       So, why do I think Governor Romney did the right thing? By 
  introducing legislation to reinstate the death penalty he was 
  fulfilling one of his campaign promises, which is in itself 
  commendable. Moreover, our governor was attempting to do what a 
  large part of the electorate (probably even the majority) wished him 
  to do. Lastly, and I think most importantly, he showed great 
  leadership in effectively helping reshape the national dialogue 
  about capital punishment. By pledging that the Massachusetts version 
  would be "the gold standard for the death penalty in the modern 
  scientific age", Governor Romney was conceding what proponents of 
  capital punishment often fail to admit - namely, that the 
  possibility of executing an innocent person is too great under the 
  current patchwork of systems as they exist across the country - and 
  attempted to create a failsafe system in the Commonwealth. In 
  pursuit of this objective, the commission tasked with this project 
  in 2003 formulated a unique approach: capital punishment was to 
  apply only to a narrow range of first-degree murder cases and 
  require "conclusive" forensic evidence for conviction, and the 
  sentencing jury would have been required to find a defendant guilty 
  with "no doubt" rather then the usual "beyond a reasonable doubt." 
  All cases would then have been required to pass review by an 
  independent panel, and survive review by the Supreme Judicial Court.
       I, like many opponents, wish to see capital punishment 
  abolished immediately and outright - but sometimes change is 
  incremental. I still believe that if we truly wish to ensure that 
  the innocent are not executed, then the only real failsafe is to 
  have no death penalty at all. However, if the Governor's initiatives 
  spurs even one other jurisdiction to reform its administration of 
  capital punishment so as to reduce the chance of a miscarriage of 
  justice, then that is progress, however imperfect. The debate on the 
  death penalty is far from over, regardless of how our House votes.

  Ian C. Pilarczyk is a resident of Granville Road and a member of the 
  Ward 9 Cambridge Republican City Committee.  The Right View is a 
  biweekly column written by a member of the Cambridge Republican City