May 4, 2004 Editorial: Narrow death bill won't be deterrent There are those who oppose the death penalty because of deeply held moral beliefs, and for them there can be no compromise, no ``foolproof'' route for the state to take a human life. But for most citizens and voters, the concern is a far more practical one. They want to see justice done, but fear a wrongful conviction will result in a wrongful death. Frankly the spate of recent exonerations hasn't increased public confidence in the criminal justice system. And this is, after all, the one penalty which once imposed is irrevocable. The panel appointed by Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday released its recommendations for a statute aimed at creating a death penalty that is as ``infallible as humanly possible.'' The proposal described yesterday likely is that. It is also so hideously cumbersome and so narrowly focused that we wonder why the governor would even bother to fight this fight. Unless, of course - and this has become an all-too-common pattern - he wants the issue more than he wants the legislation. The ground-breaking legislation would certainly be a Romney administration trophy. But the likelihood that the state would be firing up Ol' Sparky in our lifetimes is remote at best. Even without a death penalty on the books, murder convictions are often difficult to come by. If we didn't know it before, we surely know it in the wake of the not-guilty finding in the case of Kyle Bryant, charged with the slaying of 14-year-old Chauntae Jones and their unborn child. (Of course, it's unlikely this case would fit any of the definitions to make it a capital case under the proposed legislation.) And the Bryant case was decided under the ``beyond a reasonable doubt'' standard. Can you even imagine - short of a videotape of a killer pulling the trigger - what it would take to find someone guilty of murder with ``no doubt'' (in the sentencing phase of trial) being the standard of proof? The panel recommendations put a great deal of stock in getting the science right, making sure the physical evidence is properly gathered, tested and used at trial. But the sad fact is that right now this state is far from getting that right in existing cases. DNA evidence in anything but the most high-profile cases routinely takes months to process and that includes scores of rape kits that remain untested. But as Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, has said, ``Innocent people have been, can and will continue to be wrongfully convicted in cases in which there is no biological evidence to get to the truth.'' There is much in the panel's work that is worth pursuing even in the absence of a death penalty bill that itself is likely to be dead on arrival on Beacon Hill. Creating an ``independent scientific review'' and mandating an upgrade for state labs, the office of the medical examiner and others who deal with evidence in criminal cases ought to head everyone's crime-fighting to-do list. But if the real purpose of a death penalty is to serve as a deterrent to crime, this one doesn't even come close to the mark.