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JOAN VENNOCHI

Mass. liberals hedge on death penalty

A quarter century ago, Michael Dukakis was ridiculed for putting principle ahead of emotion with this reply to a presidential debate question about the death penalty.

“No, I don’t, Bernard,” he famously responded, when CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked if he would support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. “…I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime,” the Democratic presidential nominee went on to explain.

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The Duke was skewered for his position and his lack of passion in presenting it. But I prefer it to the twisting and turning from today’s crop of Bay State liberals in response to news that the Justice Department would seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who is personally opposed to the death penalty, is seeking it against the so-called Marathon bomber because of the targeting of an iconic event; Tsarnaev’s lack of remorse; and the age of one of the victims, 8-year-old Martin Richard. In response, Massachusetts Democrats, who also personally oppose the death penalty, straggled into line behind him.

“One way or another, based on the evidence, Tsarnaev will die in prison,” declared Governor Deval Patrick. “… The best we can do is remind each other that we are a stronger Commonwealth than ever and that nothing can break that spirit.”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren said she is against the death penalty but respects Holder’s decision. Senator Ed Markey said he is against the death penalty, except “in the case of terrorism.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who voted against the death penalty in the state Legislature, said he would still vote against it, but supports “the process” that brought Holder “to this decision.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor and is also supposedly against the death penalty, said she is sure “that after very thoughtful consideration, Attorney General Holder has made this decision based upon the facts of this case and applicable federal law.”

Democrat Juliette Kayyem, who is also running for governor, said Tsarnaev’s crimes “were heinous. Period” and noted her work in death penalty appeals litigation in Alabama. But she didn’t say she disagreed with Holder.

Don Berwick, another Democrat running for governor, gave the strongest rebuttal: “I have no sympathy for the individual behind this horrific crime, but I agree with the Boston Bar Association – there is no place for the death penalty in our nation’s justice system.”

Massachusetts rejected the death penalty in 1984. And a Boston Globe poll, taken last September, found that Boston residents who were surveyed favored a life sentence without parole over the death penalty for Tsarnaev, 57 percent to 33 percent.

So the timidity in challenging Holder’s decision stems from something other than offending hometown voters.

For one thing, there’s a Democrat in the White House, and Massachusetts Democrats don’t want to cross him or his AG.

There’s also the posturing aspect of Holder’s decision. Since 1988, there have only been three executions for federal claims, despite the government asking for the death penalty in nearly 800 cases. Seeking the death penalty also increases the government’s leverage to get the defense team to agree to a guilty verdict in return for life without parole.

But I think it also shows that to Massachusetts politicians, “Boston Strong” has come to mean something more than pulling together as a community in the aftermath of the Marathon horror.

To them, “Boston Strong” means looking tough to the nation on terrorism, not “squishy on crime” in that old, Michael Dukakis way.

When Dukakis stood strong on principle, and lost big to George H.W. Bush in 1988, it was the beginning of the end of the classic, courageous Massachusetts liberal – the one who is willing to say, I oppose the death penalty, period, no matter how heinous the crime and unrepentant the killer.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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