Keep The Death Penalty Out of Massachusetts

electric chairOn behalf of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL), I am here today to express our opposition to House Bill 1494, an Act seeking to reinstate capital punishment in the Commonwealth.  As the preeminent organization for criminal defense lawyers in Massachusetts, MACDL has long been an outspoken critic of the death penalty system, which countless studies have shown to be arbitrary, discriminatory, costly and fraught with the possibility of error.  Because we believe that House Bill 1494 shares these flaws, MACDL opposes its approval and passage.


Bill 1494 seeks to establish a “foolproof” death penalty system in Massachusetts in which executions would be limited to those cases where the evidence has a “high level of scientific certainty connecting the defendant to the crime.”  But recent revelations about the problems with hair and bite mark analysis, as well as arson investigations, only highlight some of the problems inherent in ever changing forensic standards.  The fact of the matter is that seeking a foolproof death penalty – free from human bias or error – is an impossible task.  And once an execution has been carried out, there is no chance to rectify that fatal mistake.


We are convinced that this death penalty bill deserves rejection not only because it is bad public policy and perverts justice but also because its exorbitant cost would adversely impact other efforts to provide justice and public safety to the citizens of Massachusetts. At a time when adequate funding for education, health care, job programs, drug treatment programs, courts, law enforcement and defense systems are limited in the Commonwealth, the death penalty is an unaffordable, unwise expense.  Each death penalty case is certain to lead to significantly higher costs to the criminal justice system and years of expensive litigation, while holding out the oftentimes false promise of closure to the family members of murder victims.


One need not look further than our neighboring state of New Hampshire to see confirmation of these facts.  The Attorney General’s office there spent 1.6 million dollars while prosecuting Michael Addison, who was ultimately sentenced to death and is the sole inmate on New Hampshire’s death row.  The state spent an additional 1.2 million on the defense of Mr. Addison, a tremendous sum when compared to the average cost to defend a typical non-capital first-degree case in Massachusetts.  It is estimated that the appeals in that case will cost New Hampshire an additional half-million dollars a year until either his sentence is overturned or committed to life in prison, or until he is executed – a process that could easily take up to ten years.


Moreover evidence shows that the death penalty is applied in a racially and discriminatory manner.  Studies in a number of states have found irrefutably-flawed practices implicating race and economic bias in the prosecution and imposition of death penalty cases.  There is nothing in Bill 1494 which would prevent this shameful, arbitrary and discriminatory practice from occurring in Massachusetts.  Leading criminologists overwhelmingly agree that there is no solid evidence that capital punishment deters crime.  The conclusion is inevitable that rare, ethnic origin and economic status are the key determinants of who will, and who will not, be charged with and receive the death penalty.


The Bill before you presupposes a good number of criminal defense lawyers willing and able to handle death penalty cases in Massachusetts.  It does this while requiring that such lawyers demonstrate the proficiency, skills, and legal knowledge and understanding required to provide legal services in capital cases.  However, as the President of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a career public defender who has been handling murder cases for more than twenty years, I am aware of only very few lawyers in Massachusetts qualified to assume such representation at the present time.  Where will death penalty qualified lawyers come from?  Where will experienced capital prosecutors come from?  Where will we get the money to adequately train and compensate these lawyers?  And most importantly, why will good lawyers committed to doing justice answer the call that they participate in the killing system, or as retired Supreme Court Justice Blackmun put it, “the machinery of death”?


The death penalty is unjust and  uncivilized. As criminal defense lawyers we are acutely aware of how inconsistent the death penalty is with the fallibility of our justice system. MACDL urges our representatives to stand with us and the growing bipartisan consensus in this country against the death penalty by rejecting House Bill 1494.


Written by Michael Hussey

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