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Fatal errors

GARY LEE SAMPSON was not deterred by the prospect of the death penalty, and it is unlikely anyone else would be under the terms of the "fail-safe" plan to resume executions in Massachusetts that Governor Mitt Romney unveiled this week. For this reason, and the more compelling argument that executions brutalize the administration of justice, the Legislature should reject his proposal.

In 2001 Sampson killed two people in Massachusetts, which has no death penalty statute, and claimed a third victim in New Hampshire, which allows executions in limited cases. Because he crossed a state line, Sampson was liable for the death penalty under a federal anti-carjacking law. "The irrationality of your crimes illustrates why capital punishment is unlikely to deter potentially violent criminals," Judge Mark L. Wolf said as he sentenced Sampson to die.

At a press conference Monday, Romney conceded that there is little evidence that the death penalty produces lower murder rates. He contended that his plan would deter those who might otherwise commit a murder in prison or kill a law enforcement officer.

Perhaps. But the prospect of death would probably not have kept another prisoner from killing John J. Geoghan last year. Joseph L. Druce, the alleged killer, apparently possesses murderous impulses similar to Sampson's. Rational calculation of risk does not appear to have been a factor in the Geoghan murder.

Fear of execution would not have dissuaded Jeffrey L. Bly from murdering prosecutor Paul R. McLaughlin in 1995. Bly meticulously planned the killing in the belief that he would not be caught. In states that impose the death penalty, hundreds of people commit murders each year with the same expectation that they will escape punishment.

Several district attorneys oppose Romney's plan, arguing that it would be too expensive and that state laboratories lack the skill and resources to assure that an innocent person could not be executed. The money Romney would spend on elaborate prosecutions would be better spent on the police work that brought Bly to justice, or improvements in the laboratories, or tighter prison procedures to protect inmates from predator-murderers.

Wolf, in his sentencing statement, said Sampson must die to serve "the purpose of retribution, meaning revenge and retaliation." Reliance on the death penalty sends a message that violence is an acceptable response to wrongdoing -- a message that is not conducive to fewer violent crimes. The United States needs to move beyond vengeance as a guiding motive for its system of justice.

Massachusetts has not executed anyone since 1947, and its murder rate is the lowest of any urban state. Sampson's execution, if the sentence is upheld on appeal, will do nothing to enhance public safety, and neither would Romney's proposal. 

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