Scot Lehigh

Coakley’s death penalty chameleon act unimpressive

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, speaks to media after a debate at the University of Massachusetts Boston Campus Center on Jan. 11, 2010. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff) Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, speaks to media after a debate at the University of Massachusetts Boston Campus Center on Jan. 11, 2010.
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / January 13, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

LAST OCTOBER, I sat down with Martha Coakley to talk about the issues.

US Representative Michael Capuano, who was running as the unabashed liberal in the Democratic primary, had portrayed her as cautious about speaking out on progressive causes, and Coakley was ready to hit back.

“I’m as progressive and liberal as Mike Capuano,’’ she declared.

When the topic turned to the death penalty, Coakley, who had once favored capital punishment for cop killers and murderers who slay again while in prison, said she was now against it in any circumstance. She contrasted her stand with that of Capuano, who in 2001 had voted for federal anti-terrorism legislation that included capital punishment for terrorists who bomb public areas or government buildings.

“So if you are Mike Capuano, don’t say you are against the death penalty. You have carved out an exception,’’ she said. “He has now voted in favor of the death penalty for terrorism. It is also an example of, if you are principled, you are against the death penalty.’’

Even, I asked, for terrorists like Osama bin Laden or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?

“I’m saying I don’t think a death penalty is appropriate,’’ she said. “I think we need to do other things to protect ourselves from terrorists, but I think the death penalty is not appropriate.’’

Fast forward to Monday’s US Senate debate. Republican nominee Scott Brown asked Coakley whether she would favor the death penalty for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed if he is found guilty for the September 11 attacks.

“He will get the death penalty if he is found guilty,’’ she said. Brown then asked whether she agreed that he should get the death penalty. “Yes, because that is what the federal law says right now,’’ Coakley replied.

When Brown noted that she had come out strongly against the death penalty, Coakley said she didn’t support it personally and wouldn’t vote for it. Still, she said, US Attorney General Eric Holder had decided to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in federal court and “it’s their decision to make.’’ If found guilty, “he will face the death penalty,’’ she concluded. “That’s what the law of the land is and I would support the law of the land, even though I disagree with it personally.’’

So: When trying to fend off a liberal primary rival, Coakley said she was against the death penalty for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and criticized Capuano for supporting legislation that included capital punishment for terrorists. But now, running a general election race against the more conservative Brown, she’s finessing what she once cited as a principled position.

Now, I’m opposed to the death penalty in most instances, though I think an exception is easily made for terrorist murderers. That said, I have a certain admiration for people who take heartfelt, but unpopular, positions.

But it’s hard to be impressed with a candidate who in October highlighted her supposedly principled opposition to the death penalty for terrorists and then in January embarks upon an extended hair-splitting spree whose obvious intent is to neutralize that very issue.

I should note that I’m even less impressed with Brown. He strikes me not as a moderate Republican in the Bill Weld mold, but rather as a crypto-conservative trying to distance himself from his right-wing stands. Witness his blatant debate attempt at obfuscation about his 2005 amendment, which would have allowed hospital workers to refuse emergency contraception to rape victims. Or his dissembling about his previous statements on global warming. More importantly, his opposition to federal healthcare reform puts him on the wrong side of historic legislation.

Still, I had hoped that the odds-on favorite to replace Ted Kennedy would run as a worthy successor, and not try to slide by with a campaign consumed with calculation and contrivance.

So here’s some advice. Show some character, Martha. Can the hedging and havering, the caution and equivocation. Say what you believe and explain why you believe it. Even when they disagree, voters tend to admire politicians who are forthright.

And if you win their respect, chances are good that you’ll win their votes as well.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at

More opinions

Find the latest columns from: