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Romney files death penalty bill

Measure sets out tight restrictions

Governor Mitt Romney yesterday filed a long-awaited bill to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts for deadly acts of terrorism, killing sprees, murders involving torture, and the killing of law enforcement authorities.

The bill, which Romney called ''a model for the nation" and the ''gold standard" for capital punishment legislation, draws entirely from the findings of a special commission that set out 10 recommendations last year. That panel sought to design a virtually ''foolproof" death penalty law by relying on verifiable science and tougher legal safeguards.

The bill lays out a set of hurdles for meting out capital punishment sentences, in an effort to neutralize problems that have led to dozens of death-row exonerations across the nation in recent years. The measure calls for verifiable scientific evidence such as DNA to sentence someone to death and a tougher standard of ''no doubt" of guilt for juries to sentence defendants, rather than a ''beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. It also calls for a pool of certified capital case lawyers to ensure proper representation for the indigent and allowing jurors to serve in the guilt phase of the trial who do not necessarily support the death penalty.

''Of course, there are always extreme circumstances one can envision," Romney said, acknowledging that provisions in the bill would not absolutely rule out wrongful convictions. But Romney said his main responsibility ''is to protect the safety of our citizens."

''We believe that the best way to do that is by adopting this very rigorous and very narrow standard for applying the death penalty," he said.

The prospects for the Romney bill appear bleak. It met immediate resistance from death penalty opponents and several Democrats in the Legislature, which has defeated a host of bills to reinstate capital punishment since it was abolished by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 1984.

Massachusetts is one of 14 states that either have no capital punishment law or had their law abolished by state high courts, which happened in Kansas and New York last year. A 15th state, Illinois, placed a moratorium on executions in 2000 because of a series of death-row exonerations.

While some fellow Republicans and at least one prominent Democratic lawmaker, Ways and Means vice chairman James E. Vallee, expressed support for Romney's bill yesterday, both state Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi are outspoken opponents of the death penalty, and Travaglini spokeswoman Ann Dufresne yesterday said ''the Senate president doesn't believe there's much of an appetite in the Senate for this bill."

''Anybody who thinks that this is a foolproof, gold standard bill is being misled," added Representative David Linsky, who served 14 years as a prosecutor in the Middlesex district attorney's office and worked on 25 murder cases. ''It casts a broad sweep across a wide spectrum of the criminal justice system, and a lot of people could conceivably be put to death under this bill who are innocent."

The closest House vote on the issue came in 1997, when a bill to reinstate the death penalty deadlocked on a tie vote. A capital punishment measure failed in the House by 34 votes in 2001. A University of Massachusetts poll in 2003 indicated that those surveyed supported the death penalty by a 54-to-45 margin, but a majority also doubted Romney could craft a foolproof death penalty statute.

Despite the high level of opposition, Romney said he hopes the measure will receive ''a full and fair hearing" in the Legislature. Romney has been a supporter of the death penalty in certain cases at least since he ran for US Senate in 1994.

Even if the bill's future is in question, the Romney measure could bolster the governor's standing among conservatives nationally as he tests the waters for a run for the White House in 2008. Meanwhile, the two men likely to vie for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts in 2006, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and former assistant US attorney general Deval Patrick, criticized the bill yesterday.

Reilly, who supports the death penalty, said he cannot back Romney's bill because the state's crime laboratory, medical examiner's office, and municipal police departments are underfunded and thus incapable of providing the kind of airtight conditions the governor's bill envisions.

Pointing to the pace of the three-year investigation of the Christa Worthington murder case on Cape Cod, Reilly said: ''At this point, without the infrastructure in place, I think we have greater priorities in public safety and housing and jobs. Let's get real."

Patrick, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who served as head of civil rights in the Clinton administration's Justice Department, decried Romney's bill.

''The death penalty can never be made foolproof, it is not a deterrent, and the huge costs incurred in capital proceedings divert resources away from actually fighting and prosecuting crime," Patrick said in a statement.

Romney, addressing questions about the state's ability to fund and prosecute expensive capital cases, said he has backed efforts to beef up the State Police crime lab and ''expand the capacity to use modern science" in the courtroom. But even without a vast infusion of cash into the lab and medical examiner's office, he said, the safeguards built into his bill would prevent anyone from being wrongfully convicted.

Under the Romney bill, defendants younger than 18 and mentally impaired defendants would not be subject to the death penalty. Those found guilty and sentenced to death would die by lethal injection, said Shawn Feddeman, Romney's press secretary.

The commission that laid out the plan said the jury should find that there is ''conclusive evidence" reaching a ''high level of scientific certainty" linking the defendant to the crime scene, the murder weapon, or the victim's body before a death sentence could be imposed. In addition to DNA evidence, the commission said other evidence could include footwear impressions, fingerprints, ballistics, and photographs.

State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, who sponsored a bill signed into law last year to compensate those wrongly convicted of felonies, said she worries that the bill would create a two-tiered system of justice because those convicted with scientific evidence such as DNA could be subject to the death penalty, while those convicted of the same crime without such evidence would face life behind bars.

The measure appears following several high-profile cases in which judges, court officers, and policemen were killed or wounded, cases that Romney says should result in a death penalty if they ever happen in Massachusetts. Romney cited the case last month of a Georgia rape defendant who allegedly took a court officer's gun and killed a judge and two other people as a prime example of why such a law is needed here.

But Representative Michael Festa, a Democrat who plans to run for Middlesex district attorney in 2006, said the case only highlights how capital punishment laws offer little deterrent value.

''Georgia is a death penalty state," Festa said. ''The man who committed that crime was not at all deterred by that state's death penalty statute."

In addition to opposition lawmakers, several organizations came out yesterday to state their objections to Romney's bill, including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's four Roman Catholic archdioceses.

Globe correspondent Janette Neuwahl contributed to this report.

Governor Mitt Romney said public safety is the key issue.
Governor Mitt Romney said public safety is the key issue. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
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