December 23, 1982 DEATH PENALTY NOW LAW King warns would-be killers, speaks of justice for victim By Andrew Blake, Globe Staff As of Jan. 1, persons convicted of certain categories of murder in Massachusetts will face the possibility of being sentenced to death under controversial legislation signed into law yesterday by Gov. Edward J. King. In the wash of television lights and the flash of still cameras, King fulfilled a campaign pledge and a voters' directive at 1:12 p.m. yesterday when he signed the bill authorizing the return of executions in Massachusetts. No one has been executed in Massachusetts since 1947, and several times since 1975 the state Supreme Judicial Court has struck down as unconstitutional the old law on capital punishment. Because of the lengthy review process provided under the law, no one is expected to actually be executed for several years. Opponents of the law have vowed to challenge its constitutionality in the courts as well. With the new law in hand, King issued an immediate warning: "Let any would-be murderer, any arson-murderer, rapist murderer know for a certainty that if they break the law, they will pay the full price." Meanwhile Governor-elect Michael S. Dukakis yesterday reiterated his personal opposition to the death penalty but said, "I will uphold the law." The law permits the execution of persons found guilty of premeditated murder or murder committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty. Executions would be carried out by electrocution unless the prisoner chooses lethal injection. Lethal injection was the method used two weeks ago to end the life of a convicted murderer in Texas. Massachusetts becomes the 38th state to enact the death penalty since the US Supreme Court ruled that it does not automatically violate the US Constitution. "Let me say here that I believe this statute will be challenged in the courts and that it will meet all constitutional requirements," said King. "This legislation safeguards a defendant's constitutional rights; the bill imposes capital punishment in limited cases - carefully and consistent with constitutional safeguards," he added. "Today I conclude my four-year effort to restore a balance to our system of justice - a balance which is concerned not only with justice for the murderer but with justice for the victim and the victim's family as well." King said, "I know the new governor is opposed to the death penalty, but his mind could be changed." Dukakis termed the new law a "regrettable return to the days when the governor has to sit in his office and play God with people's lives." "I don't welcome that responsibility, and I don't think any other governor would. I don't think it's going to make a contribution to our criminal justice system," he said at a morning press conference called to announce two Cabinet appointments. King, asked whether he could actually "pull the switch," said, "That is not the function of the chief executive." Asked if he expected an execution in the next five years, King said he couldn't guess, but he added, "In five years I might be back here, and if so would be in full support of the death penalty." "I campaigned on this issue. I can assure you I was confident I would be the governor when this bill took effect," he told reporters. Rep. Marie J. Parente (D-Milford), one of several legislators who helped King with the death penalty bill, then took the microphone at the ceremony and said she had thought about the responsibility of sending another person to death but concluded that "when a person decides to kill you, he has pulled the switch on himself." Dukakis, a longtime, outspoken opponent of capital punishment, repeated the statement he had often made during his campaign this year, that although he was personally against the death penalty, he will uphold state law. If a death penalty case comes before him, "I will review it as thoughtfully and a sensitively as I possibly can. I will uphold the law." While he did not rule out issuing a reprieve to a condemned convict, Dukakis did say he would not automatically grant one. Each case will be judged on its merits, he said. The law includes a list of "aggravating circumstances," one of which a jury must invoke in imposing the death penalty. The list includes murder of a police officer or a firefighter. Under the law, juries are also mandated to consider a list of mitigating circumstances which could warrant a lighter sentence of life imprisonment. Among the mitigating circumstances listed are the convicted person's criminal record, age and whether the defendant suffers from post-Vietnam stress syndrome. The signing of the bill, one of King's top priorities, came just seven weeks after 60 percent of the state's voters approved a constitutional amendment which removed a legal roadblock to restoration of capital punishment in Massachusetts. Critics of the bill claim the aggravating circumstances provisions are so broad that 85 percent of those convicted of murder could receive the death penalty. However, said the bill's defenders, the lengthy process which a jury must follow before imposition of the death penalty would keep all but a very few criminals from death row. The bill is modeled after a Georgia death penalty law which was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1976. The legislation almost didn't make it through the Massachusetts Senate, however, which approved the measure shortly after midnight last Wednesday by a scant two votes, 19-17. One death penalty opponent, Sen. Jack H. Backman (D-Brookline), said later, "One of the saddest moments in the four-year reign of Ed King came today when he signed as his memorial to the commonwealth a bill restoring the death penalty." "I shall work for the repeal of the new state-sanctioned murder statute," he said. Reaction, in the form of a written statement, came also from the Massachusetts Campaign Against Restoration of the Death Penalty. "Three days from now, the Christian world celebrates the birth of a man who was executed by the state for his religious beliefs. Today, Gov. King has signed into law the broadest based death penalty in the country," the statement said. "We know it is only a matter of time until the state kills an innocent person," the statement added. Between 1947 and the state Supreme Judicial Court's decision invalidating the old death penalty law, 43 persons had been sentenced to death in Massachusetts but all received gubernatorial reprieves.