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Science stressed on death penalty

Governor Mitt Romney said yesterday he is confident that a commission he has created can develop a death penalty statute that will use the latest forensic science and technology to guarantee that only the guilty will be executed.

"We want a standard of proof that is incontrovertible," Romney said as he stood at a State House press conference with members of his newly formed Governor's Council on Capital Punishment. He said he wants to put "science above all else" in capital murder cases. The governor said he is directing the panel, which is made up of well-known forensic and legal specialists, to craft a narrowly defined capital punishment law that will deal with those who have committed multiple murders through acts of terrorism; killers of those in the criminal justice system, such as judges, prosecutors, and police officers; and those who commit the "most heinous violent crimes."

Romney said the commission will not study whether Massachusetts, one of 12 states that do not have a death penalty statute, should reinstate executions. Rather, he said, its mission is to determine whether an air-tight system can guarantee that only the guilty are sentenced to death.

"Just as science can be used to free the innocent, it can also be used to identify the guilty," Romney said.

Romney's commission hopes to craft a bill that strengthens prosecutors' case for the death penalty by using DNA evidence to link defendants to the crime. That technology has been used by capital punishment opponents in recent years, as states have released more than 100 death row inmates or lowered their sentences.

The use of the latest science, Romney hopes, will persuade lawmakers to pass the bill. In recent years, the margin in the House opposing capital punishment has grown to 34 votes. In 1997, the bill failed on a tie vote.

"When the legislation has been crafted superbly and has avoided the kind of pitfalls that it had in the past, we believe we will have sufficient support to proceed with capital punishment in these narrow circumstances," Romney said.

The council will meet six times before Dec. 31, with the governor setting a target of introducing a bill in early 2004.

Despite Romney's confidence he can ease the concerns of legislators, House Democrats, who have blocked death penalty bills in the past, predicted the governor's move would have little impact.

John P. Slattery, a former Democratic legislator from Peabody and onetime proponent of capital punishment whose switch on the issue blocked the death penalty bill in 1997, said Romney's efforts will do little to persuade the House to reinstate capital punishment.

"He is bucking the popular trend," said Slattery, a criminal defense attorney. "The public support for the death penalty is not what it used to be. I don't think he has a chance of convincing the House of Representatives that the system is foolproof."

House Speaker Thomas F. Finneran opposes the death penalty but has not used his powerful post to push his position on his colleagues. Senate President Robert Travaglini also opposes the death penalty. Neither could be reached for comment.

Romney's effort, hailed by its proponents as potentially setting a model for the country, also ran into criticism from some criminal justice specialists who questioned whether such a system, even using the latest forensic science, could assure 100 percent guilt.

James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, said he doubted the council could overcome human errors that are part of the process of the criminal justice system.

"Science is performed by scientists and scientists are human beings and they are not infallible," Fox said. "Science is irrefutable, but scientists can make mistakes. How can the governor guarantee whether evidence is planted or mishandled or incorrectly tested?"

Still, the council's cochairman, Joseph L. Hoffman, a professor of law at Indiana University, said Romney's effort has the strong potential for breaking new legal ground in America's contentious and often emotional debate over the death penalty.

Hoffman said what is unique in Romney's council is that its members will start from nearly scratch. Other states with death penalty statutes have existing case law that complicate their efforts. "All existing reform efforts in other states are based on the backdrop of existing law," he said. "We're being asked to start with no preconceptions and find what standard of proof would be appropriate."

Hoffman will share the chairmanship with Dr. Frederick R. Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Romney said he did not ask the 11 members their views on capital punishment when he considered their appointment.

Some of the other members include Dr. Henry C. Lee, a forensic scientist who gained fame for his testimony in the O. J. Simpson case; two prosecutors, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz; retired Superior Court Judge Robert Barton; and Donald R. Hayes, director of the Boston Police Crime Laboratory.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said yesterday that states have tried for 25 years to craft a perfect death penalty statute, but never achieved it. "The quest for certainty has been tried over and over again and has failed," said Dieter, whose group is critical of capital punishment. "I don't know if this commission will be any different."

Romney acknowledged that if the panel reported that it cannot fashion a foolproof system of determining guilt in capital cases, he would be "wise to take heed," but insisted it would not shake his support for the death penalty and his belief that it would deter murderers. His move has riled members of the House Democratic leadership, who feel that Romney is playing politics with the issue.

The governor's announcement came as federal prosecutors in Massachusetts are seeking the death penalty in three high profile cases. Yesterday, the Globe reported that federal prosecutors are looking to bring federal death penalty charges against Charles Jaynes, one of the men convicted of killing 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge in 1997. Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley yesterday said she believes Jaynes's life sentence is "the appropriate sentence."

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