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Boston lawyers’ group blasts death penalty

Says capital punishment makes ‘no sense,’ shouldn’t be considered in federal cases

The Boston Bar Association, which represents more than 10,000 lawyers and some of the top firms in the state, released an internal study Tuesday strongly opposing the death penalty in federal cases, the organization’s most pronounced stand against federal capital punishment in its 250-year history.

The announcement was made as federal prosecutors consider whether to seek the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, and as prosecutors continue to seek capital punishment for admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson.

“Without equivocation, the death penalty has no place in the fair administration of justice and makes no sense on a practical level,” said Paul T. Dacier, the bar association’s president, who ordered a review of the organization’s stance on the death penalty in August. The review was also made to determine whether to speak out against federal capital punishment.


“Regardless of how heinous the crime, we stand strong against the death penalty in federal and state cases,” Dacier said.

The US attorney’s office in Boston would not comment on the association’s study.

The review was conducted by the association’s Death Penalty Working Group, which in September began reviewing trends in death penalty cases, including what other states are doing.

The group recommended against the death penalty as a policy based on several historical arguments: the “inevitability of error” in criminal cases; in practice, the death penalty has disproportionately affected minority communities; and the costs of a death penalty case far exceed those of other cases, while research shows there is an “illusion of ultimate punishment.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Margaret R. Hinkle, who cochaired the group, said recent trends in death penalty cases reinforce the decades-old arguments against capital punishment that have been made before Massachusetts courts and the Legislature.

Since 1988, when the federal death penalty was authorized for certain drug cases and later for a host of other crimes, the US Department of Justice has sought capital punishment for 492 defendants, although only three were ultimately executed. The rest died while awaiting their appeals, are appealing, or the death penalty was dropped for a range of reasons.


In recent years, states have increasingly abandoned their death penalty laws, including Illinois in 2011 and Maryland in 2013. Over the past 40 years, researchers found that 143 defendants who were on death row were wrongfully convicted. The bar association’s research found that the chances that a defendant would face the death penalty were 4.3 times higher if the victim was white than if the victim was black.

Meanwhile, the bar association cited a study showing that the cost of defending a death penalty case is eight times higher than the cost of a similar case in which prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty.

“The research we conducted confirms that death penalty prosecutions, including federal death penalty cases, are more expensive and time consuming, more subject to prolonged delays, and unlikely to produce a different result than where the prosecution seeks life without parole,” said Martin F. Murphy, a partner at Foley Hoag, and a cochairman of the bar association’s working group.

The Supreme Judicial Court last vacated a death penalty law in Massachusetts in 1984, and legislative attempts to pass new laws have since failed. The last state executions were in 1947, for two convicted murderers.


The federal government, under the Federal Death Penalty act of 1944, permits the death sentence for a wide range of crimes, however, and federal prosecutors since then have sought the death penalty on three separate occasions in Massachusetts, including Sampson’s case.

In 2003, a jury ordered the death penalty for the admitted serial killer, but a judge overturned the decision in 2011, finding fault with one of the jurors. Prosecutors announced last month they will again seek the death penalty for Sampson.

US Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is scheduled to announce by the end of this month whether he will seek the death penalty against Tsarnaev, who is accused of setting off the bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 at the Marathon. His alleged coconspirator and older brother Tamerlan died in a gunfight with police days later, though police have said that Dzokhar ran over his brother while making his escape.

A Globe poll in September showed that 57 percent of Massachusetts respondents supported a life sentence for Tsarnaev, compared with 33 percent who favored the death penalty.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@