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In a move that reveals his indifference to ethical principles, Massachusetts Governor W. Mitt Romney announced on Tuesday the creation of a Governor’s Council on Capital Punishment. Comprised of experts in forensics and criminal justice, the Council’s assignment is to devise a system to determine guilt with sufficient certainty to prove that the death penalty—which was abolished in Massachusetts in 1984—can be reinstated without concern of wrongful executions. Romney’s attempt to make the death penalty palatable is both a moral abomination and an unreasonable pipe dream.
Make no mistake that the technical and intellectual considerations to be investigated by the Council serve only to obscure the depravity of its work and of the Governor who ordered it. Even if it were possible to create an incontrovertible system—it is beyond the state’s place to dole out death. It has been known in every place and at every time that it is wrong to kill, and no government should exempt itself from such a fundamental moral tenet. For Massachusetts to do so now would represent a 19-year regression in the state’s human ethics.
But Romney is misguided even in the practical aspects of his immoral project. The strict standard of evidence to which he is committed is untenable. While new biological techniques can reduce erroneous convictions, to be sure, the capital punishment system’s limitations are insurmountable. As of September, 55 people have been executed this year nationwide; meanwhile, nine innocent people have been exonerated and released from death row this year, adding to the more than 100 releases since 1976. With thousands on death row, it would be ridiculous to believe that all innocents are spared. Wrongful death is so deeply embedded in capital punishment that its eradication is beyond the abilities of any Governor’s Council—no matter how talented its members. Another problem beyond the scope of the Governor’s Council is the racial bias that afflicts the judicial process in death penalty cases. Studies have consistently shown that black defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants in comparable cases.
Romney’s agenda is long-standing: several other recent Republican governors of Massachusetts, such as current Ambassador to Canada A. Paul Cellucci, have led unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the death penalty. But state legislators must fully realize the significance of their voice in this contentious issue. In 1997, the State House of Representatives came within one vote of passing a death penalty bill. The threat of capital punishment is a very real one.
Even if Romney’s initiative never leads to a regrettable policy change, it will divert precious time and resources from the state’s more important business: creating jobs, improving public education and resolving the budget crisis. Romney would do better to turn his attention toward more pressing concerns and to realize that death is neither a practical nor moral punishment.
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