ONLY 13 STATES in the nation do not allow capital punishment for convicted murderers. If Gov. Edward J. King and his legislative supporters in the Commonwealth have their way, that tally will soon drop to 12. We hope it will not.
No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947, when two convicted murderers were sent to the electric chair. But in the past decade, proponents of this extreme from of punishment have pushed hard for its reinstatement, often nearing success. While the state legislature has passed execution provisions several times, only gubernatorial vetos and Supreme Judicial Court rulings have blocked the establishment of a Bay State death row.
But now an executive friendly to capital punishment sits in the statehouse and he is is trying to get his way by amending the state Constitution. King's proposal cleared the first hurdle in the three-step process last year, winning the support of both houses of the legislature sitting in constitutional convention. The amendment must now be approved again by the representatives during this legislative session, and then by the voters in November.
It is too early to tell whether the death penalty will this year make its, way into the law of the Commonwealth. But supporters, pandering to the fears of citizens, give it a pretty good shot. Raising the spectre of cold-blooded murderers stalking the streets of Boston, they continue to pose a-life-for-a life as the ultimate deterrent. Now, they are also promising that capital punishment will provided much-needed financial savings, arguing that, when cities and towns are laying off firemen and police, when schools are cutting curriculums, it is better to bury a murderer than to pay for him.
The effectiveness as a deterrent is highly questionable, and has been constantly denied by study after study. A 1958 state commission report found no difference between the persuasive power of a life sentence and a death sentence. The economic argument, as morally repugnant as the process it supports, is also factually dubious. The costs involved in the long legal battles often accompanying death sentences could very easily exceed those financing a prison term.
Little could justify this final verdict delivered by a legal system characterized by inconsistencies and imperfections. Experience from other states shows that the death penalty is often levied unusually heavily on the disproportionate number of minorities filling the jails. There is no reason to believe that Massachusetts, a state not immune to racial controversy, will be different.
The Supreme Judicial Court in 1980 stated in ruling the death penalty unconstitutional: "While this court has the power to correct constitutional or other errors by ordering new trials for capital defendents whose appeals are pending or who have been fortunate enough to obtain stays of execution or commutations, it cannot, of course, raise the dead." Legislators should not push Massachusetts into following others in this practice, but rather, should preserve this state as an example.