Massachusetts Rejects Death Penalty Again!

Cellucci Proposal Loses For Third Time In Five Years

Amnesty International member Jenny Veninga and another protester demonstrating outside the state house in Boston.

By: Bill Keach and Mary Rogers

“That’s a pretty big margin.” This is what Gov. Paul Cellucci had to say to reporters on March 12 immediately after the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 94-60 to reject a bill to reinstate the death penalty.

The margin surprised both opponents and supporters of the bill. Opponents of the death penalty said before the vote that they expected the bill to be defeated, and supporters like Cellucci acknowledged that they had little chance of success in this legislative session. Still, they were stunned by the scale of their defeat.

Cellucci, who opposed capital punishment earlier in his career, almost succeeded in reinstating the death penalty in 1997, when he exploited the horrible murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley to foment pro-death penalty sentiment. The bill failed by a single vote. In 1999, he again waged an aggressive campaign for reinstatement, but a growing anti-death penalty movement fought back, and his bill failed by eight votes.

This time around, Cellucci was more cautious. He realized that there is a rising tide of opposition to capital punishment, both here in Massachusetts and across the country.

The overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives came partly from newly elected representatives opposed to the death penalty. But it also came from six representatives who switched their votes to “no” this year. Among these was Rep. Robert Correia of Fall River, who cited his diminished confidence in the criminal justice system as a factor in his change of position.

Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran emphasized what he called “an extraordinary movement away from the death penalty” nationwide — even in the midst of tragedies such as the killing of seven office workers by a mentally unstable employee at a high-tech company in Wakefield, Mass., last December.

Anti-death penalty activists mobilized an impressive show of solidarity that contributed to the decisive rejection of the death penalty. Lobbyists from the ACLU and Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty spent weeks targeting specific representatives and plied the halls of the State House making their case right through the debate and the vote. Members of Amnesty International, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, Veterans for Peace and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty organized mass phone-ins, circulated petitions calling for a national moratorium on executions and rallied outside the state house on the day of the vote.

Lawyer Johnson, a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty who spent 12 years in Massachusetts prisons for a murder he did not commit, spoke directly to many legislators and single-handedly persuaded one member of the House to change her vote.

This victory for the anti-death penalty cause came during a week that included other critical developments. On March 14, two days after the vote, Kristen Gilbert was convicted of murder by a federal jury in Springfield, Mass. Gilbert, a nurse at the Veterans Affirs Medical Center in Northampton, was charged with injecting a heart stimulant into three patients, causing their death. Because she worked at a federal hospital, she was convicted under federal statutes and faced the death penalty. But on March 26, 2001, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and Gilbert was given four consecutive life sentences without parole.

On the same day that Gilbert was found guilty, Kenneth Waters was released from a Massachusetts prison after serving 18 years for a murder he didn’t commit. DNA tests done on a sample kept for years in the basement of the Middlesex County Court House proved that blood found at the scene of the 1980 murder of Catharina Brow didn’t match Waters.

The legal work to prove Waters’ innocence was primarily done by his sister Betty Anne Waters, a mother of two with a GED who worked her way through college and law school so that she could challenge the criminal justice system and win her brother’s freedom.

Betty Anne was assisted in the later stages of her effort by Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project. After Kenneth’s release, Scheck commented that this case provided one more example of why the death penalty should be kept out of Massachusetts and abolished in the rest of the country.

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