of Emergency: Federal Death Penalty in Massachusetts
Whats Up Magazine (Boston)
There hasn't been an execution in Massachusetts
since 1947. The commonwealth officially and legally abolished
the death penalty from the books in the 1970s. Proposals to
reinstitute the death penalty have been defeated by ever-larger
margins in the Massachusetts legislature over the past ten years.
So why is it that we are now in a state of emergency
with regards to the death penalty? It is because the Justice
Department is setting off alarms through federal prosecutions
all around the country - including in our own backyard. Massachusetts
is currently the site of a capital trial as the federal government
attempts to convince a jury sitting in Boston that Gary Sampson
should be executed.
As this article hits the streets in December,
there is a jury sitting right now at the Moakley Federal Courthouse
deciding whether or not Sampson, who has already pled guilty
in three murderous carjackings, should be sentenced to life
in prison without the possibility of release or executed.
Executed? You thought we were safe from this outdated
practice that every single other industrialized country in the
world has abolished? Think again.
Even though Massachusetts is joined by a national
minority of 11 other states that do not allow for the execution
of its prisoners, we are still subject to federal statutes that
override state law. And along with the 38 states that do allow
capital punishment to be carried out, the federal government
also retains the option of using death as a punishment. (There
is a federal death row situated in Terre Haute, Indiana that
houses 27 inmates, and in the last 40 years, three federal executions
have actually been carried out.)
Despite Sampson's attempt to turn himself in through
a phone call to the FBI before he killed anyone (by the way,
the FBI hung up on him), despite his voluntary surrender, and
despite his willingness to admit guilt, Ashcroft is going in
for the kill, literally.
But we can't blame the bloodthirsty Bush/Ashcroft
team completely for infringing on our state-established choice
of how to deal with murderers. The Drug Kingpin Statute of 1988
and the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 laid the groundwork
of expanding the federal death penalty system, adding over 60
capital offenses (including carjacking) to the federal statute
However, prior to 2001, Massachusetts was untouched
by the expanded reach. Then came the Kristen Gilbert case -
an unsuccessful federal death penalty prosecution in Springfield.
It was in 2001 that Ashcroft's Justice Department eliminated
a Clinton administration provision that opened the gates to
a system where the Department could pursue the death penalty
in non-death penalty states.
This tactic is backfiring across the country.
Even in states that historically support the death penalty,
federal prosecutors have failed to persuade jurors in 19 of
the last 20 trials in which they sought execution.
So what is the emergency?
Cost is one thing. It costs almost four times
as much for representation in a case where the federal government
seeks the death penalty. I don't know about you, but it seems
to make more sense to put Sampson in prison for the rest of
his life and use the money we saved to subsidize public transportation,
reinstate lost local services, and all of those things we so
desperately need federal funding for.
Another thing is that in cases where the person
is willing to admit guilt to speed up the process (like Sampson)
or in order to testify against others, Ashcroft is undermining
the plea bargaining option. So not only is the Justice Department
wasting money, they are losing credibility by slowing down or
even hurting other investigations by removing the plea bargain
as an option. After all, why would anyone plead guilty if they
know the Feds want to try and strap them to a gurney anyway?
The moral and psychological implications of brining
death to our door cannot be overlooked. The death penalty brutalizes
society. It brings us down to the level of the murderers, and
teaches that killing is an appropriate response to killing.
Even if the Justice Department fails to convince a jury that
Sampson deserves a death sentence, it will have succeeded in
making death penalty prosecutions a fact of life.
Sampson's penalty will be decided sometime this
month, when the all white jury tells Judge Wolf what they think
should be Sampson's fate. But it is not over. Ashcroft has already
given the go ahead to pursue death in at least one other case
in Boston, and is still considering others. If we are lucky,
we won't be sending any Massachusetts residents to the Justice
Department's death chamber in Indiana.
Join the coalition of anti-death penalty groups
to resist the federal death penalty during a weekly vigil outside
the courthouse. People gather every Thursday from 11 am till
1pm. Directions and more info at www.mcadp.org.