March 17, 2005 No place for the death penalty By Rep. Mike Festa The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that offenders under age 18 cannot be sentenced to death. It's about time. We were the last democracy in the world to end this practice. That said, many states continue to use the death penalty for first-degree murderers, although here in Massachusetts we have not executed anyone since 1947. Attempts to reinstate the death penalty have occurred every legislative session, and most recently Governor Romney has filed a new death penalty bill that purports to limit its application to only "fool-proof" cases. There is no such thing, and even if the criminal justice system were flawless, I believe there are other compelling reasons not to use the death penalty. As a former assistant district attorney and member of the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, I am convinced that despite our best efforts and intentions, our judicial system is not perfect and no death penalty statute would be "fool-proof". The statistics on the rate of false convictions for death penalty cases are simply staggering. Since 2000 alone, 36 death row inmates have been exonerated, most often as the result of the discovery of new evidence. Governor Mitt Romney formed the Council on Capital Punishment to come up with a plan to reinstate a "fool-proof" death penalty. Romney has repeatedly insisted on the Council's ability to create perfect "evidentiary standards" to ensure the appropriate application of the death penalty. But we cannot ignore the fact witnesses, juries, judges and attorneys are all human and can and do make mistakes. Adding to the issue of false convictions is the fact that the vast majority of defendants who are sentenced to death are unable to hire their own attorneys and are represented by overburdened and underpaid public defenders who are often incapable of providing sufficient services for their clients. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently observed, "I have yet to see...an eve-of-execution stay application in which the defendant was well-represented at trial...People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty." In the words of one Florida death row inmate, "those without the capital receive the punishment." What are the other reasons suggested by proponents of the death penalty? Deterrence is one. Well, virtually every study conducted has indicated that the presence of a death penalty statute does little, if anything, to deter potential offenders from committing violent crimes. In fact, New England, where there has not been a single execution for nearly a half-century, has the lowest per capita rate of violent crime of any region in the country. Can it be fairly said that Florida, Texas and other states that are relentless in using the death penalty are safer and less murderous places to live? The death penalty is expensive. Sentencing an offender to death is at least three times more expensive than life in prison without parole. In Florida, for example, each execution costs the state $3.2 million -more than five times the cost of life imprisonment. As taxpayers, we have to ask ourselves: Is this the best use of our hard-earned tax dollars? Lastly and most important, the issue of the death penalty for me is about justice and basic human rights. I appreciate that some people want to seek revenge against those who have committed brutal and despicable acts against innocent victims, or believe in "an eye for an eye". But for the state to cause another to die only reinforces that cycle of death, and by such acts we demean all our lives. The issue of the death penalty isn't going away. It divided our Supreme Court and it will continue to divide our residents. But when the arguments are thoughtfully considered, the case is clear that the death penalty has no place in our society. State Rep. Mike Festa, D-Melrose, represents the 35th Middlesex District.