Should Massachusetts Reinstate the Death Penalty?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," May 2, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Capital punishment in the Commonwealth? Republican Governor Mitt Romney is introducing a new death penalty bill in Massachusetts, but he says a jury should only impose capital punishment if they have no doubt of a defendant's guilt.

Joining me now is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. So, what is the difference between guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and no doubt?

GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-Mass.: Well, first of all, you must recognize that when you are dealing with capital punishment and you're talking about instituting that penalty in Massachusetts, you have to believe in the art of the possible. So, we had to define our bill in a very narrow way to get some people who have been on the sidelines to come over to our side.

"No doubt" basically says we are going to use science, which has been used to prove that people are innocent, even though they have been convicted and are on death row. We are going to use the same science, DNA evidence and so forth, to prove that people are guilty. And when they are guilty, when there is really no doubt whatsoever about their guilt, then we can go ahead and carry out a capital punishment penalty.

GIBSON: So, you're going to distinguish between a Charlie Manson (search), where somebody could have a doubt — he was, after all, not on the scene of the murders — and somebody who people saw, let's say, a Sirhan Sirhan (search), fire the gun and kill the person?

ROMNEY: Well, actually, you are right. What we are doing is saying, for those people who oppose the death penalty — and there are a lot of them — some just oppose it on the basis they don't feel a government should ever take someone's life. But then there are others who say, look, I could support the death penalty, but I don't want to see innocent people being killed. And, in that case, we are saying, look, we are going to apply this law in very narrow circumstances, where there's torture involved or terrorism involved or mass murder. And we're going to have a standard of proof that's high enough that you don't have to worry about it being applied against the innocent.

And so there has to be physical evidence, scientific evidence, and basically a jury saying, look, there is no doubt on this one. And take the Timothy McVeigh case or one that's local here, the Gary Sampson case, where multiple murders occur. In the case of Gary Sampson, there is a confession, where there is physical evidence. There's no question this person is guilty.

And, in that kind of case, where there's been torture, mayhem, multiple murders, terrorism, these people ought to pay the ultimate price for their ultimate crime.

GIBSON: What do you think is the greater element of the opposition in Massachusetts — pure, philosophical opposition to the government taking a life or this whole issue of just not being certain if the right life is being taken?

ROMNEY: Well, we probably divide them in different camps.

There were a lot of people who have thought that in the past that the death penalty ought to be reinstated, but we haven't quite had enough votes to get it done. There are a number of people who feel no death penalty, no matter how carefully it's applied. And then, in the middle, there are a very small number of individuals who say, you know, if you could really convince me that you wouldn't be applying the death penalty in a way that was going to convict or execute the innocent, then I could support it.

We are going after those voters by having a very high standard of proof and by also limiting the crimes for which the death penalty is applicable to a pretty narrow set. And by virtue of doing that, we are hoping to get the additional votes we need. Now, the good news is, we haven't had any awful, terrible murders here in Massachusetts in the last year or so.

And that makes it harder for us to get our legislation through, of course, because the public sentiment isn't as strong. But we are hoping that people will put aside the emotion of the moment and instead focus on what is the right thing to do to deter these terrible crimes. And we believe that the death penalty is the right way to deter the most awful of the acts among us.

GIBSON: Governor, after you get the voters and the legislators on your side, what about the courts? Do you think the Massachusetts courts will go along with this or are they going to be blue through and through and oppose it no matter what?

ROMNEY: Well, our courts have a record here in Massachusetts, don't they, of being a little blue and being Kerry-like, if you will.

They gave us gay marriage this year. They have also been pretty tough on some other measures. And yet I do believe that, if we are able to enact a bill through this legislature, that they will believe that this bill is constitutional. I certainly hope so. We brought together a collection of jurists from around the country, from law school professors to forensic scientists.

Basically, the very best thinking in the entire nation came together to say, look, we want a provision which is as foolproof as humanly possible, that assures that we will never, ever execute an innocent person and that applies only to the most outrageous and horrendous crimes.

And I think, on that basis, that our Supreme Court, as well as the legislature, will pretty much go along with this and recognize that we're doing the right thing to protect the lives of our citizens. One other group, by the way, that is protected is those individuals who work in our judicial system. We have had murders nationwide where law enforcement officers have been killed by those that are accused, where, as you will recall recently in a courthouse, a man took a deputy's gun, killed the deputy, killed the judge.

These kinds of cases, where there is interference in the judicial process — killing witnesses, killing judges, killing district attorneys — they really are amenable and appropriate for the death penalty. So, I think you're going to see support.

GIBSON: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Thanks a lot. Hope you come on again.

ROMNEY: Thanks, John.

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