Near Death Experience

Recent votes in the state Legislature highlight problems with
capital punishment

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

As a former state legislator, Associate Vice President for State and Community Relations W. Paul White knows first-hand about the passion which accompanies debates on the death penalty, the most recent of which occurred last week in Massachusetts.

In 1981, White chaired the House of Representatives committee that wrote a bill - which passed but was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Judicial Court - to reintroduce capital punishment in the state. Public hearings, normally staid affairs, were rife with strong emotion, marked by audience members holding up banners and singing spirituals, White recalled.

"It's not an issue many legislators grab with gusto and even its proponents are not that enthusiastic," said White, who served as state representative and senator for nearly 25 years until arriving at BC last month. "The death penalty is understood to be a conscience vote, but there's no room to waver about it. If you play Hamlet, if you drag out your response, you're likely to get in trouble."

White's former colleagues confronted this dilemma again last week when the Massachusetts House of Representatives decided - by one vote - not to restore the death penalty. In doing so, it reversed a vote days earlier that would have re-instituted the death penalty by an equally thin margin.

From left, Associate Vice President for State and Community Relations W. Paul White, Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pope (Theology) and Assoc. Prof. Alan Rogers (History). (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
White and several University faculty say the convergence of several emerging social trends and dramatic recent events nearly eclipsed a long-standing resistance to capital punishment in the state. But the legal, political and moral questions persist, they say, and would redouble if the bill had passed.

"It seemed that the basis for a lot of the opinions involved in passing the original legislation were emotional," said Assoc. Prof. Stephen Pope (Theology), author of articles on the death penalty for America and Commonweal . "When politics are driven purely by emotion, our judgment is skewed. The more abstract but very critical issues, like how to prevent violence, are ignored in favor of a desire for a quick fix."

Pope, like other observers, was struck by the speed with which the debate took place. Perhaps the major reason for that was the strong public reaction to several high-profile violent crimes, most notably the murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley.

"That was the case that created the crescendo," said Assoc. Prof. Alan Rogers (History), who has written on the history of capital punishment in Massachusetts. "Historically, a majority of people have said they favor capital punishment, but that usually hasn't translated into action. In part, this is because people have answered in the abstract; they haven't been dealing with the particulars of a case or a person."

The uproar in the wake of the Curley murder also reflected a nationwide anxiety, faculty say, one which has grown despite the fact that the rate of violent crime has fallen. As this apprehension fueled a renewed push for capital punishment, White believes the Massachusetts legislative leadership realized in this case it had limited power against the "conscience vote."

"My sense is, the leadership essentially said, 'If you could see your way clear to voting against this, we'd appreciate it, but we understand if you can't,'" White said.

Rogers noted that Massachusetts has strong reformist leanings, and that the controversy of the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti ultimately helped generate a national re-examination of the death penalty earlier this century.

But such tendencies were overtaken by what Pope calls "visceral morality," or a decision to act "from an immediate, gut response." The results of those actions, he says, raise some troubling questions.

"One of our strongest beliefs is that people have dignity because they are human beings," Pope said. "The test case for that is the person who attacks another, who has forfeited their status in society. Are proponents of capital punishment actually siding with the murderer when they say that there are people who have the right to decide who lives and dies?"

As much of an influence as the Curley murder and other recent cases were on this debate, faculty say, the controversial murder conviction of Louise Woodward only days after the first vote serves as a reminder that the justice system sometimes produces doubt and ambiguity.

"It's disturbing to hear that some people feel it's worth the risk of punishing someone who is perhaps innocent," Pope said, "to wreak revenge upon the undeniably guilty."

Assoc. Prof. Dennis Hale (Political Science) says other points of contention arise.

"Everything will change when someone is actually executed and for proponents it will be a shock," he said. "The death penalty cases you'd see usually aren't the high-profile, horrific cases like Jeffrey Curley's, and where the defendant is white. It's more likely to be a gang-related shooting or a gas station robbery and it will revive the whole debate about the socioeconomic aspects of crime, and, in that context, the unfairness of capital punishment."

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