BOSTON (AP) — As Massachusetts governor, Republican Mitt Romney set himself a daunting challenge: craft a death penalty law that virtually guaranteed only the guilty could be executed, then push it through an overwhelmingly Democratic state Legislature that was leery of capital punishment.
Making the task even more difficult, the push by Romney — who is now running for president — came in 2005 at a time of growing national skepticism about the death penalty. Just two years earlier, Illinois Gov. George Ryan had cleared his state’s death row after the death sentences of several inmates had been overturned.
Romney decided to tackle that skepticism by coming up with what he said would be a “gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age.”
In trying to set a new and higher bar, Romney also was chasing two political goals.
The first was to fulfill a promise, made during his 2002 run for governor, to try to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts, then one of a dozen states that had banned the punishment. The second was to burnish his conservative resume as he looked ahead to 2008 and his first run for president.
“We believe that the capital punishment bill that we put forward is not only right for Massachusetts, but it’s a model for the nation,” Romney said at the time, in comments similar to what he said about his overhaul of the state health insurance system. That law became a blueprint for the sweeping federal health care overhaul enacted by President Barack Obama, which has become an issue in the White House race.
Romney’s handling of the death penalty issue opened a window into the type of management style he could bring to the White House if elected. He hand-picked a commission and outlined his goals in broad terms. Then he turned the panel’s recommendations into a bill that ultimately failed to get through the Legislature. But his decision to fight an uphill battle on an issue that had begun to lose its urgency also showed Romney wasn’t afraid of a political fight.
His first step was to pull together a panel of legal scholars, prosecutors, crime lab officials, a medical geneticist and criminologist Henry Lee, who played a key role in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other highly publicized cases.
One of those heading up the panel was Joseph Hoffmann, a law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. Hoffman said Romney gave the group a free hand, but suggested they focus on harnessing “the power of science” to improve on death penalty laws in other states.
“He said ‘this is completely up to you.’ We were given an amazing amount of discretion and leeway,” Hoffman said. “He wanted us to be free to discuss this, talk about it and propose any ideas, any improvement, any processes that would make this the best death penalty anyone had ever proposed.”
The bill Romney filed adopted many of the panel’s recommendations.
It limited capital punishment to the “worst of the worst” crimes — including terrorism, the murder of police officers, murder involving torture and the killing of witnesses — and required a “no doubt” standard of guilt.
It outlined a series of safeguards, including a requirement that physical evidence, such as DNA, directly link the defendant to the crime scene. Lethal injection was the specified method of execution. The bill also mandated an additional review of evidence before an execution could be carried out. Every death penalty case would have separate juries for trial and sentencing.
Part of Massachusetts’ reluctance to impose death sentences comes from its rocky history with the penalty.
One of the most controversial cases involved the executions of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were put to death in 1927 after being convicted of killing two people during a robbery. Many observers, then and now, say the trial focused unfairly on their anarchist political beliefs and immigrant status.
The state abolished capital punishment in 1984.
By the time Romney took office in 2003, Massachusetts hadn’t put anyone to death since 1947, although it had come within a single vote of restoring the death penalty after the 1997 kidnapping and murder of a 10-year-old boy.
But by 2005, lawmakers had again begun to turn away from the death penalty. Some cited human error and prejudice among reasons to steer clear of reinstating it.
“Errors have been made and will continue to be made,” Rep. John Keenan, a Democrat and descendant of one of the victims of the Salem witch trials, said during debate over the bill.
Even Romney conceded the possibility of human fallibility during a public hearing on the measure.
“A 100 percent guarantee? I don’t think there’s such a thing in life. Except perhaps death — for all of us,” Romney said, although he described the proposal “as foolproof a death penalty as exists.”
Others saw political motives in Romney’s efforts.
“There was no way the Massachusetts Legislature was going to pass a death penalty bill,” state Rep. David Linsky, a Democrat who opposed Romney’s bill and had helped investigate or prosecute about 25 murder cases as an assistant district attorney, said in an interview. “It was all about setting up his future conservative credentials outside Massachusetts.”
Others, including many Republican and moderate Democrats backed the measure, however. But the bill was defeated on a 99-to-53 vote in the House after more than four hours of impassioned debate.
Not all the criticism of Romney’s proposal came from death penalty foes.
Some conservatives said his plan was so narrowly drawn and had so many layers of safeguards that it would be virtually impossible to carry out an execution under it.
Now running for president a second time, Romney hasn’t spent time touting the death penalty proposal. He prefers to focus the debate on the issue his campaign believes offers him the best chance of winning in November: the economy.
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