March 13, 2001 Death penalty bill soundly defeated By Erin C. McVeigh, Globe Correspondent The Massachusetts House yesterday defeated a bill to reinstate the death penalty by a margin that surprised most advocates and opponents. The 92-to-60 vote, after just three hours of debate, differed greatly from previous years, when lawmakers engaged in lengthy emotional battles over the issue. In 1997, the bill was defeated by one vote after a lawmaker switched his position at the last moment. "That's a pretty big margin," said Governor Paul Cellucci after yesterday's vote. "Certainly, the speaker [Thomas M. Finneran] has made this a priority not to pass the death penalty." Cellucci, who opposed the death penalty as a legislator, has been a vocal advocate of capital punishment as governor. But with support for the death penalty slipping among the public, as doubts emerge about the guilt of some of those sentenced to die, he took a far less active role this year. Yesterday, after the House action, he refrained from harshly attacking opponents or chiding them for being soft on crime. Cellucci even declined to testify three weeks ago when the Criminal Justice Committee held public hearings on the legislation. He also did not send Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift. The wider margin occurred in part because new legislators replaced death penalty supporters. Also, some legislators, such as Democratic Representatives Robert Correia of Fall River and Colleen M. Garry of Dracut, switched sides. "I was surprised the margin was that wide," said Correia. "No one expected it to be a close call, but a 32-vote margin on the vote showed there were a substantial number of members like myself." The defeat by the House yesterday means the measure cannot be brought up again until 2003. Correia cited his diminished confidence in the criminal justice system as a factor in his decision to abandon the death penalty. Massachusetts is one of 12 states without a death penalty statute. "We should spend the money on programs to make the streets safer and look to prevent murders rather than take out revenge after the fact," said Garry, adding that the testimonies she heard as a member of the Criminal Justice Committee influenced her switch. "I am not happy about it, but it is not a surprise to me," said House minority leader Francis L. Marini, a Republican from Hanson. "We knew exactly what the size of the vote was going to be." He added that as long as he is in the Legislature, the debate will continue to resurface. Finneran said the large margin reflected nationwide trends. In Illinois, which has had a capital punishment statute since 1977, more inmates have been released from death row because of doubts about their guilt than have been executed. DNA evidence and confessions from other people prompted many of the releases. Last year, Governor George Ryan halted all executions indefinitely. Marini attributed the margin to a "number of forces," including that newer House members tend to be more liberal and that media attention has focused on people on death row who have later been shown to be innocent. Finneran said the vote showed an "extraordinary movement away from the death penalty," even in the midst of tragedies such as the killing of seven office workers in Wakefield.