Monday, July 18, 2005 Op-Ed Mitt's execution bill should be DOA By James Alan Fox All too often debates about the death penalty dissolve into either emotionally charged arguments over morality or intellectually sterile exchanges of facts, figures and scientific research. Neither type of discussion appears to change many minds on the propriety of state-sanctioned killing. Logic about the utility of capital punishment, however, suggests that legislation proposed by Gov. Mitt Romney to reinstate the death penalty is just a bad idea. Restoring capital punishment makes little sense, especially in light of Massachusetts' distinction as having the lowest homicide rate among the urban states and the lack of consensus in public opinion. Romney's bill strives to eliminate the chance of error by fashioning a foolproof system informed by science, such as DNA and other high-tech approaches to produce a no-doubt standard. The layers of safeguards, including a tandem of top-notch defense attorneys, wide latitude in hiring experts, appeals and post-conviction review, would make the state's capital punishment machinery the most expensive in the land. When Romney called his proposal a gold standard, he wasn't kidding, at least about the gold. Romney apparently isn't concerned about the millions that this process would cost the taxpayers. In 2002, then-candidate Romney made his priorities clear. "I don't think that the death penalty has anything to do with cost," he argued during a debate with Democrat Shannon O'Brien. "But it has everything to do with deterrence - to send a statement loud and clear to terrorists, cop killer and others." In light of his commitment to science and uncritical trust in scientific evidence, it is perplexing that the governor is so dismissive of decades of scientific studies refuting the deterrence myth. Suicide bombers certainly are not deterrable by the prospect of death. Other terrorists even welcome execution to advance their agenda and status as martyrs. As for cop killers, slaying an officer is often a deliberate move to escape arrest. For someone maneuvering to avoid any penalty, the severity of that punishment is of no real significance. It is the likelihood of punishment, and not its severity, that has the potential to deter. Ironically, the narrow applicability of Romney's bill would negate any deterrent effect that capital punishment could arguably carry. Designed to apply only to the worst of the worst, which translates into the rarest of the rare, how could it deter? I am not arguing for a broader-based bill - a silver or bronze standard. The death penalty does not protect us any better than the current sanction, life in prison without possibility of parole. The deterrence issue is relative, not absolute. The question is not whether offenders are dissuaded by death, but whether they are any more dissuaded by death than by life without parole. Much of the debate last week surrounding Romney's bill addressed whether it would guarantee an error-free death penalty. However, in these difficult economic times with so many critical social programs underfunded, it is foolish to spend millions in an attempt to execute a tiny handful of murderers. James Alan Fox is The Lipman Family professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. He testified last week at the State House hearing on capital punishment.