November 7, 1997 No death penalty, by one vote Momentum for a state law is halted as House member changes his mind; By Adrian Walker and Doris Sue Wong, Globe Staff In a stunning reversal, the Massachusetts House last night refused, on a tie vote, to reinstate the death penalty, bucking the wave of support for the resumption of state executions that followed a string of heinous murders in the region. Nine days after voting 81-79 in favor of capital punishment, the chamber deadlocked after one representative, John P. Slattery of Peabody, switched his vote out of concern that innocent people could face execution, and that the bill did not afford enough protection for juveniles and minorities. Under parliamentary rules, the 80-80 vote killed the bill, which would have allowed capital punishment for 15 categories of first-degree murder. The vote preserved Massachusetts' status as one of 12 states without the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment got their chance to reverse the tide because the House and Senate, having passed different versions of the death-penalty legislation, had to vote yesterday to accept the compromise bill crafted by a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate, long a bastion of support for the death penalty, easily approved the bill yesterday. But it was a different scene in the House. Between last week and last night, Slattery was swayed by his conviction that the law would apply to those under 18, he said. Also, the conference committee weakened protections for minority defendants contained in the House version - a factor that also apparently contributed to Slattery's change of heart. In a dramatic speech from the House floor, Slattery - a second-term Democrat - also said he had been heavily influenced by the Louise Woodward case, in which the British au pair was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of an infant. Many consider the verdict an example of the frailties of the jury process - and Slattery, despite his professed belief that some crimes warrant the death penalty, saw the case as underscoring the absence of guarantees that innocent people would not be executed under the bill. "It left me feeling that we can't always be certain that we executed the right guy," Slattery said. "And if we can't be certain of that, then I have a very big problem with the death penalty. "I'll tell you one thing I don't want to face, and it is a matter of conscience. I don't want to be lying in my bed at 12:01 a.m. 15 years from now knowing that somebody is being put to death, that I helped create the mechanism for putting that person to death and not being sure that person being put to death deserved what he got." The momentum for the reinstatement of the death penalty came largely from a recent string of gruesome murders. Foremost among those was the slaying Oct. 1 of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley, whose body was sexually assaulted and dumped into the Great Works River in Maine. Other slayings also fed the public fury, including the bludgeoning of Elaine Donahue of Reading, allegedly by her husband; the shooting of Annie Glenn in front of her three young children, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend; the strangling of Catherine Rice of Lowell and her two sons, allegedly by her boyfriend; and the killing of teenager LaToya Graham of Lynn. Slattery's vote and the outcome in the House drew harsh reaction from Acting Governor Paul Cellucci and other death-penalty proponents. They accused House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran of employing dirty tricks to salvage victory from near-certain defeat. "Speaker Finneran and the House of Representatives pulled the rug out from under the people of Massachusetts," Cellucci said after the vote. "The people of Massachusetts wanted a death penalty. Last week they had it, and tonight Speaker Finneran stole it away." In a weary but measured tone, Finneran rebutted the governor's allegations. "I'm sure there were people on both sides who continued to talk to members all over the place on it," said the Mattapan Democrat. "I have no control over who is saying what. No promises were made, no inducements were offered, no punishment was threatened. People are free to vote the way they chose. They always have been, at least on this issue." Aside from the possible execution of those who had been wrongly convicted, opponents argued that the final version of the bill would open the door to the execution of juveniles as young as 14. Specifically, they asserted that the 1982 statute that prohibits the execution of convicts who were younger than 18 when they killed is no longer valid because it was part of a law struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Judicial Court in 1982. The SJC had ruled that the law was flawed because it exempted from the death penalty defendants who plead guilty to first-degree murder. The exemption, the court found, coerced defendants into pleading guilty. Cellucci's legal staff, however, maintained that the bill would have corrected the problems. Representative Stephen A. Tobin (D-Quincy), a longtime death-penalty proponent who was a member of the conference committee, said he found Slattery's explanation for switching unsatisfactory. Tobin suggested that Slattery never mentioned his concern about the juvenile or minority protections on the House floor because they were not valid. The move to enact the death-penalty bill last night required two votes: one for acceptance of the conference committee report and a second to actually enact the law. Proponents suspected trouble after the first vote, in which several opponents voted to accept the report, while some others voted present. Other representatives who oppose capital punishment, including Finneran and his top lieutenants, did not cast votes on accepting the conference report, sources said, to try to mask Slattery's intention to switch his vote, denying proponents a chance to urge him to reconsider. Some representatives opposed to capital punishment said they voted in favor of accepting the committee report to ensure that the matter proceeded to a decisive vote. Under legislative rules, if the conference bill had not been accepted, another conference committee would have been appointed to draft another version, keeping the issue alive. But with the bill defeated at the final House vote, the issue may not be taken up again for the remainder of the current legislative session, which means not just the rest of this year but also next year. Last night's House action was the focus of ferocious lobbying, just as it was last week. Central to that effort once again was the family of Jeffrey Curley, who buttonholed as many legislators as possible in a frantic effort to persuade the House to stand by last week's vote. Meanwhile, Paul Hill, who served 15 years in prison in England for a 1974 bombing in which he was later exonerated, and Sister Helen Prejean also lobbied against the death penalty. In an emotional confrontation, Jeffrey Curley's uncle, James Michael Curley, confronted Representative Eugene O'Flaherty of Chelsea during a brief recess outside the House chamber. "Stand up there and say, 'You know what, I believe in this. We have to take a stand. We have to save our children. We have to put an end to this whole thing right here.' I'm begging you. Please do the right thing," Curley said. O'Flaherty voted against the death penalty, despite Curley's plea. Earlier, reiterating his opposition to the death penalty was Cardinal Bernard Law. "Is the debate over capital punishment really driven by a concern for the common good?" he said yesterday at a breakfast meeting of business leaders, higher education officials, and clergy. "This is the closest thing I've seen to a lynch mob mentality since I left Mississipi. He was a priest there during the 1960s. It's a frightening thing. It's a cheap, quick fix that won't fix anything." Slattery, a frequent opponent of Finneran, particularly on labor issues, denied that his vote had been an effort to curry favor with leadership. The debate before the vote went on for about five hours and closely tracked, in content and tone, the marathon session last of Tuesday. Among the proponents was Representative Francis Marini, Republican of Hanson. "There are certain human beings, if you can call them human beings, for whom the only just punishment is to forfeit their right to live among us," he said. Finneran, making his first speech on the issue, made the case for the other side. "Reflect upon this fact: What we are asked to consider and vote on today is the ultimate irrevocable act that any human being can commit or participate in. There is no redemption after this act, should that ultimate punishment be taken," he said. "Mistakes can, do, and will occur," said Finneran, who spoke for about 30 minutes to a hushed House. Tina Cassidy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.