Hugo Adam Bedau had often wondered about the fairness and humanity of the death penalty when, in 1957, he found himself at a New Jersey Legislature committee meeting at which the issue was being discussed.
“Because there were so few witnesses, Hugo was urged to appear before the committee and speak about some of the philosophical issues involved in capital punishment,” recalled his longtime friend Michael L. Radelet, a professor at the University of Colorado.
“Shortly thereafter, he visited death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and learned more about the men and conditions on death row,” he said.
Dr. Bedau’s 1964 book, “The Death Penalty in America,” has gone through several printings and brought him international fame.
His death penalty publications began with a 1958 journal article, “A Survey of the Debate on Capital Punishment in Canada, England and the United States.”
Radelet said that in 1987, he and Dr. Bedau published a Stanford Law Review article documenting “350 cases where innocent people had been convicted of homicide in the 20th century, including 39 who were sentenced to death for rape.” They expanded that into “In Spite of Innocence,” a 1994 book they co-wrote with Constance E. Putnam, a medical historian who was Dr. Bedau’s wife.
Dr. Bedau, who taught philosophy at Tufts University for 33 years, died of complications of Parkinson’s disease Aug. 13 in Norwood Hospital in Norwood.
He was 85 and lived in Concord.
“Hugo was a national figure in the struggle to abolish the death penalty, but he was also prominent in the effort to keep capital punishment out of Massachusetts,” his wife said.
Dr. Bedau “made enormous contributions, over decades, to the scholarship and practical workings of the movement to abolish the death penalty, and the ACLU of Massachusetts recognizes him as a champion of the most fundamental rights and liberties,” Ann Lambert, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, wrote in an e-mail.
“He saw capital punishment as an intolerable denial of civil liberties, and he pioneered the study of miscarriages of justice in death penalty cases,” Lambert wrote.
“His testimony at legislative hearings in Massachusetts pointed to the folly of any claim that the death penalty can be made fool-proof or error-free,” she added.
Dr. Bedau also made “an enormous difference” nationwide, said Michael Meltsner, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law.
“Hugo was a generous and gracious scholar who combined knowledge of the most demanding and difficult philosophical ideas with a strong practical sense of how those ideas worked in life,” Meltsner said.
“That is why he was such an important person in the abolition movement in America.”
He added that “the ultimate restriction of the death penalty that we have today was the result of litigation by civil rights lawyers and others. The scholarship behind the beginning of that movement, which came to some fruition in the 1970s in lawsuits before the Supreme Court of the United States, was often based on ideas that Hugo first raised.”
Dr. Bedau’s wife said that in one of his last publications, in 2009, he wrote that “racial bias and convicting the innocent are the twin evils paramount in our current death penalty system, as they have been for generations.”
Lawrence Bacow, a former Tufts president, called Dr. Bedau “a great scholar and a great teacher. He was willing to apply the tools of philosophy to shape and influence public policy on one of the most important issues of our time, the death penalty. It’s fair to say there are those whose lives were saved because of Hugo.”
Though at home in serious academic settings, Dr. Bedau “was a man of smiling eyes and a warm smile,” his wife said. “He had a deep and mellifluous voice. People frequently commented on the timbre and tone of his voice on the phone.”
She added that his sense of humor encompassed a love of Tom Stoppard plays, Monty Python, and “Saturday Night Live.”
A hiker since his teenage years, he continued well beyond his 60s to hike with his wife in England, Germany, France, and Switzerland. During summers they would swim the length of Concord’s Walden Pond and run in many 10K races around Concord.
Dr. Bedau was born in Portland, Ore., to Hugo and Laura (Romeis) Bedau, and grew up in the San Francisco area.
As a teenager, he worked in a bookstore, and his lifelong love of books was such that his wife said they had to build an addition to their home to accommodate his collection.
After graduating from Lincoln High School in San Francisco, he spent two years at the University of Southern California in the US Navy’s V-12 program.
After the Navy, he worked in a music shop, learned to fly, and graduated in 1949 from the University of Redlands in Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
In 1951 and 1953, he received two master’s degrees, from Boston University and Harvard University, and he graduated from Harvard in 1961 with a doctorate in philosophy. He taught at institutions such as Dartmouth College and Princeton University before teaching at Tufts from 1966 to 1999.
In 1952 he married Jan Mastin. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1988, and she now lives in Petersham. He and Putnam married in 1990.
In addition to his wife and former wife, Dr. Bedau leaves a daughter, Lauren Bedau Evans of Billerica; three sons, Mark of Portland, Ore., Paul of Hubbardston, and Guy of Attleboro; two sisters, Carol Bell of Temple City, Calif., and Renee Larsen of Tustin, Calif.; and five grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 24 in the Coolidge Room of Ballou Hall at Tufts.
Sol Gittleman, a former Tufts provost, noted that Dr. Bedau was elected the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professor of Philosophy in 1994, and that the Romanell lectures he delivered at Tufts were published by Oxford University Press in 1997.
“Hugo will be remembered as a courageous advocate for justice and a beloved teacher and colleague,” Gittleman said.
Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Washington, D.C., said that “we seem to be coming to the fruition of Hugo’s dream as we see the death penalty waning and nearing its end in the United States and states moving to repeal the death penalty.”