WASHINGTON -- Of capital punishment, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says: ``It makes reason stare.'' Indeed it does.
Romney, speaking by telephone from Boston, says he wants to influence the thinking of potential killers. He means capital punishment can deter -- can ``save a life or two.'' That is one reason he wants to remove Massachusetts from the list of 12 states without capital punishment.
A second reason is that he believes there are crimes so heinous that only capital punishment can express -- and by expressing, reinforce -- society's proportionate revulsion. A third reason is Stephen ``The Rifleman'' Flemmi. This month in Boston he pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in connection with his role in 10 murders. He pleaded to avoid the threat of death penalty charges in Florida and Oklahoma. ``I would hate,'' Romney says, ``to lose the ability to get Mr. Flemmi to turn state's evidence.''
Romney has appointed an 11-member Council on Capital Punishment. The legal and forensic experts' task is to devise a statute that will meet the ``highest evidentiary standards.'' He and his panel may conclude that all standards are porous enough to allow unacceptable uncertainties to pass through, and that evidentiary standards are hardly the only problem with capital punishment.
So concluded Scott Turow, the lawyer and novelist, after his service on the Illinois commission examining that state's administration of the death penalty. That experience transformed him from ``a death penalty agnostic'' into an opponent, a process he recounts in a slender new book ``Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty.''
He cites several horrifying case histories, including one of an innocent man convicted and sentenced to death twice. In the span the commission studied, one-third of the times Illinois stipulated the death sentence, the persons sentenced were subsequently either proved innocent or found, on second consideration, guilty of the offense but not deserving execution. This was the context in which Gov. George Ryan this year commuted the sentences of all 167 Illinois prisoners sentenced to death.