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 Committee.