Seasons Greetings from Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty! 66 years have now passed since Massachusetts carried out its last execution.
But the possibility of a death penalty trial has loomed over this state for much of the year. As you know all to well, the horrific killing of three people – Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi – at this year’s Boston Marathon and the subsequent equally senseless murder of MIT officer Sean Collier has led to a federal prosecution of the surviving Marathon bomber and a long, drawn-out process by which the federal government decides whether to seek the death penalty. In this past summer’s newsletter, we warned that the process might still be going by the time you received the newsletter – and now six months later, the process may still not be complete by the time you receive our end of year letter.
That may be a good thing, for it may show that the Justice Department is thinking long and hard about whether seeking death in this instance makes sense. We will continue to make the point, that Hugo Bedau pointed out some time ago, “Political terrorism is usually committed in the name of an ideology that honors its martyrs; trying to cope with it by threatening death for terrorists is futile.” And we will note as well that a Boston Globe poll taken this past September found that 57% of Boston residents would prefer a life sentence for the bomber rather than death.
There is reason to believe any political pressure on this decision will be in the direction favoring seeking the death penalty. When Mitt Romney proposed his perfect death penalty bill in Massachusetts in 2005, he included a provision that would have made terrorism a capital crime, even though it was already a federal crime, and any prosecution of an act of terrorism that happened in Massachusetts would doubtless be a federal prosecution, as is the case with the Marathon bombing. Governor Romney surely knew this, but he put a terrorism provision in his death penalty bill to show he was tough on terrorism, a consideration that may be a factor in the Justice Department’s decision.
Should that happen, MCADP will be there to make the argument to the public against the death penalty, and for this we could use your continuing support. Please renew your membership in MCADP now. Your support, through renewal and contributions, is essential to MCADP’s mission.
David Ehrmann, Chairman James P. Rooney, President
Nelson Mandela’s recent death gives us pause to reflect that South Africa once sought to execute him. How different the world would be if that had come to pass. In the early 1961, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), which soon became the armed wing of the African National Congress. The group decided to sabotage military installations, power plants, and telephone lines in order to exert pressure on the South African government. It carried out numerous such acts and sought to minimize casualties by acting at night. This was not entirely successful; one person was killed when he walked by a post office as a bomb exploded. In 1963, the government tried Mandela and ten others for sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. With the guilt of most of the defendants never in real doubt, the issue at the Rivonia trial was whether prosecutor Percy Yutar could convince the judge to sentence the defendants to death.
Mandela chose not to take the stand, but instead made a four-hour speech justifying his actions, thereby putting his life in further jeopardy.
He famously concluded:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Whether he would have to die was not clear until the judge issued his sentence. By then, the United Nations had urged South Africa to free the defendants and U.S. and British diplomats had sought to convince the South African government not to execute them. South Africa publically resisted such pressure, but in the end the judge stated that he had decided not to impose the supreme punishment, though normally it would have been appropriate. With that Mandela departed for 27 years in prison.
There is a postscript to all this. When Mandela was elected president of South Africa, one of his acts of reconciliation was to invite his former prosecutor Percy Yutar to lunch, a man Desmond Tutu remembers as having vigorously sought to have him executed. Would that we could all have even a little of his generous spirit!