AP Photo/Lisa Poole
Mitt Romney speaks to media gathered at the Statehouse in Boston in 2005.
BOSTON — Republican Mitt Romney set himself a daunting challenge when he was governor of Massachusetts: craft a death penalty law that virtually guaranteed only the guilty could be executed, then push it through an overwhelmingly Democratic state Legislature that was wary of capital punishment.
The push by Romney, who is now challenging President Barack Obama in a close race this election year, came in 2005, at a time of growing national skepticism about the death penalty. Just two years earlier, Illinois Gov. George Ryan had cleared his state's death row after the death sentences of several inmates had been overturned.
Romney decided to tackle that skepticism by coming up with what he said would be a "gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age."
He also was chasing two political goals.
The first was to fulfill a promise, made during his 2002 run for governor, to try to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts, then one of a dozen states that had banned it. The second was to burnish his conservative resume as he looked ahead to 2008 and his first run for president.
"We believe that the capital punishment bill that we put forward is not only right for Massachusetts, but it's a model for the nation," Romney said at the time, in comments similar to what he said about his overhaul of the state health insurance system. That law became a blueprint for the sweeping federal health care overhaul enacted by Obama, which has become a major issue in the White House race.
Romney's handling of the death penalty issue indicated the type of management style he could bring to the White House if elected. The bill he supported ultimately failed to get through the Legislature, but his decision to fight an uphill battle showed he wasn't afraid of a political fight.
The bill limited capital punishment to the "worst of the worst" crimes _ including terrorism, the murder of police officers, murder involving torture and the killing of witnesses _ and required a "no doubt" standard of guilt.
It outlined a series of safeguards, including a requirement that physical evidence, such as DNA, directly link the defendant to the crime scene. Lethal injection was the specified method of execution. The bill also mandated an additional review of evidence before an execution could be carried out. Every death penalty case would have separate juries for trial and sentencing.
Part of Massachusetts' reluctance to impose death sentences comes from its rocky history with the penalty.
One of the most controversial cases involved the executions of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were put to death in 1927 after being convicted of killing two people during a robbery. Many observers, then and now, say the trial focused unfairly on their anarchist political beliefs and immigrant status.
The state abolished capital punishment in 1984. By the time Romney took office in 2003, Massachusetts hadn't put anyone to death since 1947.
Even Romney conceded the possibility of human fallibility during a public hearing on the measure.
"A 100 percent guarantee? I don't think there's such a thing in life. Except perhaps death _ for all of us," Romney said, although he described the proposal "as foolproof a death penalty as exists."
Others saw political motives in Romney's efforts.
"There was no way the Massachusetts Legislature was going to pass a death penalty bill," said state Rep. David Linsky, a Democrat who opposed Romney's bill and had helped investigate or prosecute about 25 murder cases as an assistant district attorney. "It was all about setting up his future conservative credentials outside Massachusetts."
Not all the criticism of Romney's proposal came from death penalty foes.
Some conservatives said his plan was so narrowly drawn and had so many layers of safeguards that it would be virtually impossible to carry out an execution.
Now running for president a second time, Romney hasn't spent time touting the death penalty proposal. He prefers to focus the debate on the issue his campaign believes offers him the best chance of winning in November: the economy.
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