The death penalty in Massachusetts
Facts and History
There currently is no state death penalty in Massachusetts, life without the possibilty of parole being the only punishment for first-degree murder. The federal government prosecutes capital cases within Massachusetts, however.
On November 7, 2007, House lawmakers again overwhelmingly rejected a bill to reinstate the death penalty by a vote of 46 - 110. Two years earlier in 2005, the House defeated Governor Romney's legislation 53 - 100. Continue reading for a full Massachusetts history.
The first recorded judicial exection in Massachusetts took place in 1630, when John Billington, who had arrived on the Mayflower, was hanged at Plymouth for the murder of John Newcomen.
The last executions were on May 9, 1947 when Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson, both convicted of murdering Robert William, were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison.
In total, there have been approximately 345 executions within Massacusetts, including
26 convicted of practicing witchcraft.
Until 1951, murder in the first degree called
for a mandatory punishment of death. In 1951, the law was changed to
allow the jury the discretion to recommend against a death sentence
after considering mitigating circumstances - in which case the sentence
would be life imprisonment - unless the murder was committed in
connection with a rape or attempted rape, in which case the death
sentence was mandatory.
Following the executions of Bellino and Gertson,
people continued to be sentenced to death, however for thirty years
six successive governors routinely granted commutations to life sentences. In 1968,
voters expressed disapproval with this trend in a nonbinding referendum,
voting 49 to 31 percent in support of continued use of the death penalty.
During the 1970's and 80's, a series of judicial rulings
eventually eliminated the death penalty altogether under Massachusetts law:
- In 1972, the US Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia,
threw out Georgia's death penalty as cruel and unusual, citing the
arbitrary and capricious manner in which it was administered,
and leading to capital statutes throughout the country being overturned.
For Massachusetts, this meant that the discretionary death penalty for murder was
nullified, but the mandatory death penalty for rape-murder was left intact for
the time being (Cf. Commonwealth v. Harrington, 1975).
- In a 1975 case requiring two separate hearings before the Supreme Judicial Court
(Commonwealth v. O'Neal parts I and II), the remaining rape-murder law
was voided on the
principle that the right to life is fundamental and due process requires that the
state bears the burden to demonstrate a compelling interest in execution that could
not be served by any less restrictive means (such as life imprisonment). The court
concluded that the Commonwealth had not provided adequate justification for capital
punishment, and the statute
thus violated both the due process and the prohibition of cruel or unusual
punishment provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution.
- In 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that
Georgia's revised capital murder statute contained sufficient safeguards to ensure due process
and correct the shortcomings that the court had found in Furman. Following the
guidelines in Gregg, legislatures around the country began rewriting their
death penalty laws.
- In 1977, the Massachusetts House of Representatives solicited an
opinion from the SJC regarding the constitutionality of a proposed capital murder
Holding the same view as expressed in O'Neal, the SJC ruled that
the Legislature failed to demonstrate that the death penalty contributes more to a
legitimate state purpose — e.g., deterring criminal conduct — than
life imprisonment. And lacking such a showing, the Article 26 (of the Declaration
of Rights) prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment forbids the
imposition of a death penalty.
- On October 28, 1980, the SJC ruled in
District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist. v. Watson
that a new capital statute signed into law by Governor Edward King the previous November
(c. 488, Acts of 1979) was unconstitutionally cruel for all the reasons laid out
in O'Neal and their opinion of the proposed 1977 bill.
On November 2, 1982, voters approved by referendum
(54 to 35 percent) an amendment to Article 26. read more
The amendment, Article 116 of the Massachusetts Constitution, states that:
No provision of the Constitution... shall be construed as prohibiting the imposition of the punishment of death.
This completed the amendment process which had been initiated in 1980 by
legislators concerned that their 1979 statute might not survive SJC scrutiny (which it didn't).
The legislature acted quickly to draft another new death
penalty bill. On December 15, 1982, the House and Senate passed legislation
providing for capital punishment for first-degree murder. The bill was
signed into law (c. 554, Acts of 1982) a week later by Governor King
and went into effect on January 1.
This 1982 statute was invalidated by the SJC on
October 18, 1984 in the case of Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz.
While the death penalty per se
was no longer forbidden by the Constitution, this particular statute improperly
encouraged defendants in murder cases to plead guilty rather than face a jury
trial, thus avoiding the possibility of the death sentence, and violating the
right against self-incrimination and the right to trial by jury. Massachusetts
has remained without a valid death penalty law ever since.
Subsequent attempts to reinstate the death penalty have failed:
- By the time of the Colon-Cruz decision, Michael Dukakis had become
governor (again). Throughout these two terms, a nearly evenly divided legislature
never passed a bill - which the governor would have certainly vetoed.
- In 1991, William Weld became governor. He, and every governor since,
argued for for death penalty reinstatement.
- In October 1997, both the House and Senate passed bills to reinstate the
death penalty. On November 6, the conference committee bill failed on a tie
vote (80-80) in the House after a single legislator switched his position.
- An attempt to reinstate the death penalty failed on a 73-80 vote in the
House on March 29, 1999.
- On March 12, 2001, reinstatement bills were rejected in the House with
a vote of 60-94.
- Four bills which would reinstate the death penalty were introduced in
the 2003-2004 legislative session; hearings were held on March 27, 2003 at
which only oppponents of the bills appeared to give testimony, and no vote
was ever taken.
- Confronted with a growing number of
wrongful murder convictions in Massachusetts
as well as in other states, and looking back on the failed attempts of
two previous governors to reinstate the death penalty, Governor Romney
established a blue-ribbon comission to address legislators' concerns
over innocence. On May 3, 2004, the
Governor's Council on Capital Punishment
issued their Final Report, with recommendations for creating a
system "as infallible as humanly possible." Legislation
based on these recommendations was finally filed on April 28, 2005, but defeated
in the House on November 15 on a vote of 53-100.
On November 7, 2007, House lawmakers again overwhelmingly rejected a bill to reinstate the death penalty by a vote of 46-110. The vote effectively killed any chance of the bill becoming law for the 2007 session. See the AP article here.