Friday, March 28, 2003 Debate yields little support for reinstating death penalty By Julie Mehegan, Sentinel & Enterprise State House Bureau BOSTON -- Lawmakers hosted a remarkably subdued and sparsely attended hearing Thursday on what was once one of the most contentious issues ever debated in the Legislature: the death penalty. At its peak, only about 100 people turned out for the hearing before the Committee on Criminal Justice. For nearly six hours, not a single word of testimony was delivered in favor of legislation seeking to reinstate capital punishment, though some written testimony was submitted, including a letter from Gov. Mitt Romney. Panel after panel of opponents, from clergy members to human rights activists to relatives of murder victims, showed up to testify against reinstating the death penalty, which was outlawed in Massachusetts in 1984. Among those testifying was Betty Anne Waters, whose brother, the late Kenneth Waters, spent more than 18 years in prison for murder before DNA testing of evidence cleared him. Kenneth Waters, of Ayer, was released from prison in 2001 but died just six months later in an accident. For the duration of Kenneth Waters' imprisonment, "the one thing my family held onto was at least Massachusetts does not have the death penalty," said Waters, who went to law school in an effort to secure her brother's freedom. "Time was one our side to prove my brother was innocent." Waters said her family finds comfort in knowing that her brother died a free man. Flaws in the nation's justice system make reinstating the death penalty too risky, she said. "A lot of people say it's the best system in the world, but it's flawed," she said. "Instead of being wrongly convicted, my brother could have been wrongly executed." Four bills -- two sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees, R-Springfield, and one each by Rep. Brad Jones, R-North Reading, and Rep. Michael Ruane, D-Salem -- propose reinstatement of capital punishment in certain cases. For 12 years, Republican governors have tried to get a death penalty bill passed. The closest they came was in 1997, when the measure, fueled by outrage over the brutal murder and sexual assault of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, lost by just one vote. In recent years, police officers and relatives of murder victims have lined the hearing room when the issue comes up to lobby for the death penalty, squaring off with opponents. Jones said Thursday, "a lot of people's attention these days is elsewhere." Some supporters mused that the war with Iraq, the dismal economy and the apparent shortage of votes needed for a bill to pass this session led to the absence of supporters at the hearing, while opponents suggested the appetite for reinstating the death penalty has waned. A survey of lawmakers published by The Boston Globe in November showed a bill was unlikely to pass this session. "I think the word is out," said Rep. Brian Knuuttila, D-Gardner, a death penalty supporter and vice chairman of the committee who said he was "disturbed" that backers of the bills did not come to Thursday's hearing. Knuuttila's district includes Westminster, Ashby, Ashburnham and Fitchburg's Ward 4. But there aren't enough votes on the committee to recommend passage of the bill, he said, "and that type of word travels fast." A Romney spokeswoman said the fact that no one from the administration testified Thursday should not be viewed as a sign of wavering support for capital punishment. Romney supports reinstatement of the death penalty for certain crimes. "We did send a letter voicing the governor's and lieutenant governor's support for the death penalty and our own legislation, which we will file later this session," said spokeswoman Nicole St. Peter. Romney's letter said he is "committed to the passage of legislation calling for the death penalty as a sentencing option in a limited number of heinous crimes," including homicides resulting from terrorism and the assassination of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and witnesses. Other death penalty opponents testifying at Thursday's hearing included defense attorneys and members of a national organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, which opposes the death penalty. Those testifying said capital punishment is too costly, is applied unfairly, and there is too much room for error. Jeffrey Curley's father, Robert, once a passionate crusader for the death penalty, told lawmakers that while he wouldn't mind seeing some murderers "beaten daily," he now believes the law is too often applied unfairly and gives too much power to the state.