Activists Stop Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Abolitions 2, Governor Cellucci 0!

By: Brian Jones

For the second year in a row, abolitionists have stopped the reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts. On March 29, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted down Governor Paul Cellucci's death penalty bill, 80 to 73.

In 1997, Cellucci and pro-death penalty advocates used the tragic murder of a 9-year-old to win support for the death penalty - and it nearly worked. The bill went down to defeat in a tie vote after pro-death penalty Rep. John Slattery changed sides at the last minute - because, he said, of the possibility of an innocent person being executed.

Cellucci made the death penalty one of the top issues in his election campaign last fall. But his legislation was defeated by a larger margin this time around.

Celluci himself had to admit that this was in part due to the opposition being "better organized." And we were. This year, the mobilization against the death penalty was much bigger and stronger. In the weeks leading up to the vote, there were at least four demonstrations, the largest one swelling to about 500 people. On March 22, 400 people packed the state house to show their outrage at a public hearing on the death penalty.

"Nearly every person that spoke was against the death penalty," said Bill Keach, one of the speakers and a member of the Boston chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Cellucci tried to argue that the death penalty was a deterrent. When he was asked to back up that statement, he balked. He just didn't know what to say."

When Cellucci and his fellow Republicans could see that the bill would likely be defeated, they tried to get it through by making it more sellable to the opposition. But it didn't work. According to the Boston Globe, "After a bid to postpone the vote until September was defeated overwhelmingly, death penalty foes also rejected efforts to limit capital punishment to killers of law enforcement officers, to convicted murderers who kill again in prison and in cases where several layers of proof and witnesses would be required."

Slatterly, the representative who switched sides in 1997, told reporters: "Why is a cop's life more important that my mother's?" He also referred to the idea that the death penalty is a deterrent as a "lame argument."

The reason people like Slatterly spoke out has everything to do with the shift in climate around the issue of the death penalty. Recently released Illinois death-row inmate Anthony Porter received national attention when he came within 48 hours of being executed after spending 16 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Activists built on this sentiment. For example, a panel was organized with four former death-row inmates speaking against capital punishment.

These kinds of charged-up meetings, as well as rallies and demonstrations, helped to shift the mood away from support for the death penalty. But they did more that that. They helped to train a whole new layer of people to organize in a grassroots manner.

Because of this activism, Massachusetts remains one of 12 states that doesn't have the death penalty. And since the bill was rejected by the Criminal Justice Committee as well as the House, it can't be reintroduced for another two years.

This is a huge victory for abolitionists across the country - and it shows that activism works!