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State of Emergency: Federal Death Penalty in Massachusetts

By Scott Langley
Whats Up Magazine (Boston)

December 2003

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 You thought we were safe from this outdated practice that every single other industrialized country in the world has abolished?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 books.

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.


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