March 30, 1999 Mass. House rejects death penalty again By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff Following six hours of passionate debate yesterday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives defeated a bid to reinstate the death penalty in a vote that underscored the erosion of legislative support for capital punishment. By an 80-73 tally, the House accepted the Criminal Justice Committee's vote last week to reject death-penalty legislation that Governor Paul Cellucci had made a top priority. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, an opponent of capital punishment, called the vote a decision of conscience for a chamber that only 15 months ago blocked reinstatement in a tie vote after an 11th-hour switch by one representative. "There has been no strong-arm approach whatsoever," said the Mattapan Democrat. "This is as straight as it gets." But Cellucci last night assailed the speaker for holding the vote when the House had six vacant seats, and he questioned whether Finneran influenced the resignation last week of a supporter of death penalty legislation, Dennis M. Murphy, a Springfield Democrat who left to take a private sector job. "I think that he was determined to defeat it, and he did," said the Republican governor. "And I think it's unfortunate because I believe that the people of this state are not being represented by their representatives." Cellucci pledged to refile the legislation again next year. And House Minority Leader Francis L. Marini said the death penalty could resurface again this year, as an amendment to the Senate budget. But Representative A. Stephen Tobin, a death penalty supporter who is cochairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, conceded that such a maneuver would be futile in a House that already has spoken. The last execution in the state was in 1947. The state Supreme Judicial Court threw out the most recent capital punishment law in 1984. Massachusetts is one of 12 states that does not carry the death penalty on its books. For six hours, the century-old chamber echoed with rhetoric that contained counterbalanced pleas: descriptions of the death penalty as the ultimate justice for victims of horrific killings, and arguments that capital punishment is nothing more than state-sanctioned murder. "There is one irrefutable fact: Innocent people are wrongly convicted," said Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Democrat from Newton. "Innocent people have been sent to death row and been executed. Today, we deal with an issue of life itself." Tobin, a Democrat from Quincy, said "common ground" could be found between the two camps because "no one has argued that these criminals have a right to go on living." The argument has been that executing a murderer is akin to the crime itself, Tobin said, and that "seems to be an exercise in semantics." Due-process safeguards in the legislation, Tobin said, "would make it virtually impossible to execute an innocent man." Harold P. Naughton Jr., a Democrat from Clinton, was the only legislator to change his stance from 1997. A supporter of the death penalty that year, Naughton surprised administration officials when he cast the deciding negative vote for the Criminal Justice Committee last week. The 21 new legislators in the House this year were considered a key factor in the vote, but they broke almost evenly on the issue. Representative Steven V. Angelo, a Democrat from Saugus who endorsed capital punishment in 1997, did not vote yesterday. One of the most eloquent speeches made on the floor was delivered next to last by freshman Representative Brian P. Golden, a Democrat from Brighton. With a membership listening intently for nearly the first time since debate began hours before, Golden declared the country's judicial system to be fraught with the potential for deadly mistakes. Golden, a lawyer and son of a career police officer, told the rapt chamber: "If the death penalty is resurrected, the capacity for error in our all-too-human system will beget tragedy." Republicans offered amendment after amendment in unsuccessful attempts to make the bill palatable to opponents. 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. Representative John P. Slattery, the Peabody Democrat whose vote change in December 1997 created an 80-80 tie that doomed the bill, lashed out at the attempt to reserve capital punishment for "cop killers." "Why is a cop's life more important than my mother's?" Slattery asked angrily. He also said that the much-debated concept of capital punishment as a deterrent is "a lame argument," and that the impact of a death penalty is felt disproportionately by the poor. "There is no good murder," said Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat from the South End. "We want a place with less murder. We want a place with less violence." Many death penalty supporters were surprised that the amendments lost badly, some by ratios of greater than 3-1. Representative Colleen M. Garry, a Dracut Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee, speculated that efforts to narrow the death penalty bill were geared to saddle opponents with "bad votes" before the next election cycle. Garry, who backs the death penalty, said yesterday's vote carried less pressure than the 1997 decision, which followed the recent murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley. Still, Garry said, some parishioners stopped her after Mass at her church Sunday to say, "You know which way to vote." But in the end, the decision was hers to make alone, she said. She said even her father, a Catholic seminarian for 10 years, did not try to influence her. Meanwhile outside the State House, a noontime rally was solidly behind the reinstatement of capital punishment. Flanked by relatives of murder victims and standing before dozens of police officers, Cellucci pointed to the State House and said in a rising voice: "We have a House of Representatives that is out of touch with the people they represent." For nearly an hour, pro-death penalty speakers squinting in the sunlight stepped up to the podium. Some gave raw details about how a loved one was murdered. Voices cracked. Chins quivered with emotion. Fists banged the microphone stand. Police officers nodded in agreement with political rhetoric. One speaker was Ann Schiavina, whose son, a police officer, was murdered on the job in Springfield. Wearing a large gold cross around her neck and saying she was a Catholic originally from Northern Ireland, Schiavina recalled her outrage at not being able to vote in her former homeland because of her religion. "Well, that right was taken from me again," she said, adding that she sent a certified letter to Finneran requesting he delay the vote until all the House seats are filled. She never got a response. "To the speaker of the House . . . you're not a man and I hope to God you're not Irish," Schiavina said. Immediately following the rally, Cellucci conceded defeat even though the vote was several hours away. He said that momentum had waned in the two years since 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley's murder, that the opposition is better organized, and that the good economy has taken away some of the issue's urgency. Tina Cassidy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.