Pols, Experts Debate Death Penalty

HLS Panel pairs legislators and activists

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.

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