We can stop them again!

Politicians try to bring back death penalty in Mass.


By: Bill Keach

When the current session of the Massachusetts legislature opened on January 3, politicians were again calling for reinstatement of the death penalty.

Gov. Paul Cellucci has twice before tried to push through a capital punishment bill. In 1997, he exploited public outrage at the brutal murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley. But his bill was finally defeated by one vote. In 1999, Cellucci's reinstatement effort was defeated by eight votes, a sign of the growing strength of organized opposition to capital punishment in the state.

Over the past several months, public attention in Massachusetts has focused on the trial of Kristen Gilbert, a former nurse accused -- on the basis of circumstantial evidence -- of killing four patients at a Veterans Administration Hospital in Northampton. Gilbert faces the federal death penalty.

At the state legislative level, most observers give Cellucci's reinstatement efforts little chance of success this time around. The current House of Representatives contains nine new members absolutely opposed to capital punishment. Plus grassroots opponents have gained confidence from their previous successes -- and from a remarkable event last year in neighboring New Hampshire, where both houses of the legislature voted to abolish capital punishment. Shamefully, the abolition bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jean Shaheen.

But Cellucci and other Massachusetts supporters of the death penalty are again trying to take advantage of a tragedy. The December 26 killing of seven employees at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield by mentally ill coworker Michael McDermott sparked a new round of claims that execution is the answer.

The irrationality of the claim that the death penalty will deter events such as the Wakefield killings is apparent from Cellucci's own remarks to the press. "I have said for a long time that I believe the death penalty would deter this sort of crime," Cellucci said. "Whether in this case particularly, if there is a mental problem, if it would have done it or not, I don't know."

The sad truth is that having the death penalty does nothing to prevent tragedies like the one in Wakefield.

But what politicians like Cellucci do is cynically clamor for the death penalty in high-profile cases to give the impression that they have a solution.

We won't be fooled. Mental illness needs to be treated -- and far too many people in society don't get treatment. We need to focus on the real causes of violence and support efforts to improve the quality of people's lives.

Death penalty abolitionists in Massachusetts have another opportunity this year to reject the politics of legalized state murder. Confidence is high, and momentum is strong. And the entire country will be watching -- this time with more and more people recognizing that capital punishment is fundamentally wrong in principle and unfair in practice.