Mass. Legislature Votes to Reinstate Death Penalty

*Bill passes by one-vote margin; students protest

BOSTON--After 12 hours of debate yesterday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 81 to 79 to reinstitute the death penalty.

Twice rejected by the House in the past four years, the death penalty has long been simmering below the surface of the state's political scene.

But with a string of recent murders, including that of 10-year-old Cambridge boy Jeffrey Curley--fresh on the public's mind, the issue is now surging to the surface.

"I think we're finally going to do something about the insanity," Jim Curley, Jeffrey's uncle and godfather, told The Crimson in an interview last night.

The Curley family was largely responsible for bringing capital punishment before the state legislature and many of the boy's relatives were on hand for yesterday's decision.

Immediately after the voting closed, another uncle of Jeffrey's, John Curley, jumped to his feet and expressed his approval to the assembly below.

"Thank you for saving our children," he shouted before being removed by security officers.

But last night's vote did not make the bill law. The bill must still pass through a conference committee and receive the signature of Gov. A. Paul Cellucci.

But according to most, a Senate vote in favor of a similar bill last week, combined with Cellucci's long-standing support of the death penalty, mean that its enactment is virtually guaranteed.

Last night, Cellucci--who spent yesterday lobbying his former House colleagues--expressed satisfaction with the vote.

"Today we sent a message," Cellucci told reporters. "We're not going to tolerate the heinous murders we've seen in Massachusetts within the past couple of weeks."

House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran (D-Boston) bitterly fought last night's vote with an arsenal of legislative tactics, but he said he was not entirely discouraged.

"It's hard to be disappointed when the majority speaks," he told reporters. "That's the nature of the system."

And while Finneran noted that the House has passed other bills by one vote, he said that last night's decision was unique.

"[There has been] nothing of this magnitude, since this involves life and death," he said.

Cambridge's House delegation reflected the sensitive nature of the issue, splitting 2-1 in favor of the measure.

Reps. Timothy J. Toomey Jr. and Alvin E. Thompson voted in favor of the bill, while Rep. Alice K. Wolf, a former mayor of Cambridge, voted against it.

After the House recessed, Wolf expressed her disappointment in an interview.

"These are heinous crimes and they are abhorrent to all of us, but the question is what do we do about it?" she asked. "The death penalty is not the answer."

Although last night's vote was marked by the lack of large-scale demonstrations, two members of the Civil Liberties Union of Harvard (CLUH) were in the House gallery to protest the legislation.

The students also presented House majority leader William P. Nagle Jr. (D-Hatfield) with a petition signed by 222 Harvard community members who protest the bill.

After the vote, CLUH co-head Jal D. Mehta '99, who is also a Crimson editor, expressed mellancholy.

"For one of the most liberal states in America to vote to sanction state-sponsored killing is a sad moment in this country's history."

But victims of crimes and their relatives took an emotional stance that apparently resonated with lawmakers.

Robert Curley, the youngster's father, issued a warning to opponents as the House kicked off its debate yesterday morning.

"The people want it. The people are the ones who put you in there," he said. "If it doesn't get done today, then enjoy your time here in the State House, because you may be gone the next time."

The Senate version includes the death penalty for 12 crimes, including killing a police officer. The House version expanded it to 15 crimes, including domestic violence murders.

The state held its last execution in 1947. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court threw out the most recent death-penalty law in 1984, ruling that it could be applied unevenly.

"The people overwhelmingly support this because they want this violence to end, they want justice," Cellucci said.

"Will we become the 39th state in the union to say, 'If you steal somebody else's life, stand by, you face the risk of forfeiting your own life'?" asked Rep. Paul R. Haley (D-Weymouth) a death-penalty supporter, as he kicked off the debate.

But opponents quickly rose, questioning whether capital punishment serves as a deterrent. Some also said reinstating it in Massachusetts would be a pox on a state that prides itself for its enlightenment.

"Whipped by fear, whipped by the media, we now cry out for death," said Rep. James H. Fagan (D-Taunton), a death-penalty opponent. "Where is the justice?"

He proposed an amendment to televise any execution the state conducts.

A Boston Herald poll published yesterday showed that 74 percent of Massachusetts voters back a death penalty for those who kill a child. Some 40 percent said they would be less likely to reelect their representative if he or she voted against the bill.

The poll of 305 registered voters had a margin of error of 5.6 percent.

--The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this article.