Six years ago, the horrific killing of a 10-year-old Cambridge boy launched a major push for Massachusetts to reinstate capital punishment. The Boston Globe reports that the sentencing of Gary Lee Sampson could play a similar role. In Sampson, Governor Mitt Romney and death penalty advocates have a convicted killer who committed three cold-blooded murders. They have something approaching the incontrovertible proof of guilt Romney has talked about, in Sampson’s confession. Yesterday, for the first time in more than half a century, a Massachusetts jury sentenced a convicted murderer to death. Said Senate Republican leader Brian P. Lees, a leading death penalty supporter: “We’ve got regular men and women who’ve made this choice. It may make some legislators realize that in cases like this one, that are so egregious, the death penalty should be an option.”
Massachusetts, which hasn’t carried out an execution since 1947, is one of just 12 states without capital punishment. Romney, elected last year, is trying to bring back the death penalty. He has named a panel of experts to fashion a bill that would permit the death penalty in heinous cases and only where science or a confession establishes that there is no doubt of the defendant’s guilt.
Considerable doubt remains over Romney’s ability to put together enough votes in a Legislature controlled by Democrats who oppose capital punishment and to overcome politically influential groups, such as the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU of Massachusetts criticized federal prosecutors yesterday for trying Sampson in federal court specifically to try to have him executed. He was prosecuted under a 1994 law that expanded the federal death penalty to include killings that involved carjackings.
A University of Massachusetts poll conducted last month showed that 54 percent of Massachusetts residents support the death penalty, while 45 percent oppose it. A Globe poll in 1996 found 65-percent support for the death penalty in some cases. The UMass poll found that 62 percent of residents surveyed didn’t think Romney would be able to craft a fail-safe death penalty statute.