Polls, Experts Debate Death Penalty

State last outlawed capital punishment in 1984

A group of state legislators and death penalty activists met yesterday at Harvard Law School (HLS) for a symposium on death penalty legislation in Massachusetts.

During the two-hour panel discussion, held in HLS's Austin Hall and sponsored by the Harvard Journal on Legislation, speakers shared professional and personal reasons for their stances on capital punishment.

Opponents of death penalty were State Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas M. Finneran; Ann Lambert, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union; Joshua Rubenstein, northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and Representative John P. Slattery (D-Peabody).

Minority Leader of the state House of Representatives Francis L. Marini and Evan Slavitt, the general counsel of the Massachusetts Republican Party, argued in favor of the death penalty.

Capital punishment in Massachusetts has been legalized and struck from the books several times during the past century, though no one has actually been executed in the state since 1947, according to Associate Dean of HLS Carol S. Steiker '82, who moderated the panel.

Since it was last outlawed in 1984, there have been several attempts to reintroduce capital punishment. The most recent of these, a bill introduced by Gov. Paul A Cellucci, was narrowly voted down by the House only two weeks ago.

Participants focused their arguments on one central question: whether the risk of executing innocent people should outweigh the moral obligation to sufficiently punish the guilty.

Finneran said that early in his career he had been a staunch proponent of capital punishment. He said his change of heart came when he met a man who had been wrongly imprisoned for almost two decades.

"My epiphany was based upon the simple observation that this gentleman potentially may have had his life taken from him based on a vote I had cast," Finneran said.

Slattery, whose decisive vote led to the downfall of a 1997 attempt to reintroduce the death penalty, said his decision was based on a last-minute change of opinion.

He said he had followed the same path as the Speaker, moving from emotional support of the death penalty to opposition based on the possibility of a legal error leading to a fatal mistake.

"We cannot draft legislation which will ensure that you can be sure," he said.

Slavitt and Marini tried to minimize the potential dangers of procedural error. They rested their main argument on the grounds that in some cases, allowing certain prisoners to live amounts to an even greater injustice.

In the most horrible of murder cases, there is no suitable punishment other than death, Marini said.

He said he also supported the death penalty because he believed it has a deterrent effect and because the majority of Massachusetts residents have repeatedly professed their support for the measure.