Massachusetts has a reputation for deep opposition to the death penalty. But as the Globe’s Milton Valencia has reported, many potential jurors in the federal terrorism trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seem comfortable with the idea of capital punishment, when it comes to the accused Boston Marathon bomber.
So can we expect Beacon Hill to revisit capital punishment for state crimes? So far, the answer is no, for two reasons: The Democratic caucus in the State House has become more liberal, and constituents haven’t been vocal on the issue.
For a long time, Republican supporters of the death penalty could rely on support from a cadre of centrist Democrats. In 1997, a bill to reinstate capital punishment was defeated with a tie vote in the House. Eight years later, then-Governor Mitt Romney introduced legislation to reinstate the death penalty for crimes involving torture, terrorism, multiple murders, or the slaying of a police officer — as long as there was “conclusive scientific evidence,” such as DNA samples, connecting the defendant to the crime. That initiative lost in the House by a wider margin, 100 to 53, but still attracted some Democratic support.
As more progressives have filled the ranks of State House Democrats, it has become harder for a capital punishment measure to make it very far. In 2013, Democratic legislator James R. Miceli of Wilmington filed a budget bill amendment that would have reinstated the death penalty along the lines Romney proposed. It was beaten back without much debate, despite the fact that the Marathon bombing had recently occurred. At the time, some lawmakers said they didn’t want to respond to one crime with a “knee-jerk reaction.”
That mood seems to remain among the public at large. Some legislators say that, despite the Tsarnaev trial, they haven’t heard a hue and cry about the death penalty from constituents. That says something about how conflicted Massachusetts residents can be about the issue. It also says something heartening about the Commonwealth’s approach to criminal justice: One case, however tragic or appalling, doesn’t warrant a rewriting of the law.