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Relying on Science, Romney Files Death Penalty Bill

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Death penalty applies to narrow set of crimes, requires higher standard of proof

Governor Mitt Romney today filed a bill enabling Massachusetts prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases that include terrorism, the assassination of law enforcement officials and multiple killings. The legislation is the first of its kind in the nation in that it calls for corroborating scientific evidence, multiple layers of review and a new "no doubt" standard of proof.

Romney said the proposal is the "gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age."

"In the past, efforts to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts have failed. They have failed because of concerns that it would be too broadly applied or that evidentiary standards weren't high enough or proper safeguards weren't in place. We have answered all those concerns with this bill," said Romney.

Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey noted that Massachusetts is one of only 12 states that do not have a capital punishment sentencing option.

"Massachusetts should no longer be in the minority of states when it comes to deterring first-degree murder," said Healey. "The death penalty should be available for a narrow set of crimes that we all can agree deserve the ultimate punishment."

Romney's bill is based on the recommendations of the 11-member Governor's Council on Capital Punishment, which issued its findings last year.

Specifically, the legislation will allow a jury to impose the death penalty for first-degree murders that were committed as an act of political terrorism or against a law enforcement officer, a judge, a juror, a prosecutor, an attorney or a witness for the purpose of obstructing an ongoing criminal proceeding; that involved prolonged torture or a murder spree; or where the defendant had already been convicted of first-degree murder or was serving a life sentence without parole.

To ensure that only the guilty are put to death, the proposal mandates an unprecedented level of scientific evidence. Before the death penalty can be imposed, conclusive scientific evidence must link the defendant to the crime scene, the murder weapon or the victim's body.

In addition, an independent scientific review of the physical evidence must be completed before any capital sentence is carried out. This review should ensure that the evidence is collected, handled, evaluated, analyzed, interpreted and preserved according to the highest standards of the medical and scientific community.

"Just as science can free the innocent, it can also identify the guilty," Romney said.

The Governor's bill will also establish a first-in-the-nation "no doubt" standard for juries. This means that even after finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a jury may not impose the death penalty if one or more jurors harbor any residual doubt about the defendant's guilt. If a jury becomes deadlocked and cannot decide whether to impose a death sentence, the court will dismiss the jury and issue a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Romney's legislation also includes a number of additional safeguards, including:

* A bifurcated trial process with one trial to determine an individual's guilt and a separate one for sentencing. The defendant could request a different jury for each stage of the process;
* An automatic review of any death sentence by the state Supreme Judicial Court; and
* The creation of a Death Penalty Review Commission to review any complaints filed by individuals on death row and to investigate any errors that may have allegedly occurred during the trial.

The proposal also emphasizes the importance of providing high quality defense representation and recommends developing a list of "capital case qualified" defense lawyers. The defendant will be afforded two attorneys for the trials and a third for the mandatory review by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Similar to the requirements for seeking a first-degree murder conviction, prosecutors attempting to prove capital murder must establish that defendants acted with premeditated malice and were at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime and not mentally retarded.

In 2003, Romney appointed the Governor's Council on Capital Punishment, a high-level panel made up of some of the world's foremost experts in the use of forensics in homicide cases, and tasked them with using the latest advances in science to design a death penalty that meets the highest evidentiary standards to ensure that no innocent person could be wrongly put to death in Massachusetts.

The panel issued its report in May 2004. However, because of the shortened legislative session that year, Romney waited until this year to file the bill so it could receive full consideration.

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