Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

ALAN ROGERS
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 512
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk3ct
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    Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts
    Book Description:

    For more than 300 years Massachusetts executed men and women convicted of murder, but with a sharp eye on “due proceeding” and against the backdrop of popular ambivalence about the death penalty's morality, cruelty, efficacy, and constitutionality. In this authoritative book, Alan Rogers offers a comprehensive account of how the efforts of reformers and abolitionists and the Supreme Judicial Court's commitment to the rule of law ultimately converged to end the death penalty in Massachusetts. In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop and the Massachusetts General Court understood murder to be a sin and a threat to the colony's wellbeing, but the Puritans also drastically reduced the crimes for which death was the prescribed penalty and expanded a capital defendant's rights. Following the Revolution, Americans denounced the death penalty as “British and brutish” and the state's Supreme Judicial Court embraced its role as protector of the rights extended to all men by the Massachusetts Constitution. In the 1830s popular opposition nearly stopped the machinery of death and a vote in the Massachusetts House fell just short of abolishing capital punishment. A post–Civil War effort extending civil rights to all men also stimulated significant changes in criminal procedure. A “monster petition” begging the governor to spare the life of a murderer convicted on slight circumstantial evidence and the grim prospect of executing nine Chinese men found guilty of murder fueled a passionate debate about the death penalty in the decade before World War I. The trials and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti focused unwanted international and national attention on Massachusetts. This was a turning point. Sara Ehrmann took charge of the newly formed Massachusetts Council Against the Death Penalty, relentlessly lobbied the legislature, and convinced a string of governors not to sign death warrants. In the 1970s the focus shifted to the courts, and eventually, in 1980, the Supreme Judicial Court abolished the death penalty on the grounds that it violated the Massachusetts Constitution.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-156-4
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. ONE MURDER AND DUE PROCEEDING IN COLONIAL MASSACHUSETTS
    (pp. 1-38)

    Murder and capital punishment were a part of the social and legal landscape of colonial Massachusetts from its founding in 1630. The colony’s magistrates had a sworn duty to uncover and punish criminal acts, “More Especially as to ye Sin of Murder,” Justice John Cushing told a grand jury in 1746. Perceived as more than an individual violent episode, a homicide was a serious blow to the social order, a manifestation of the failure to achieve a godly commonwealth. At the same time, juries sometimes were reluctant to impose the death penalty, and the court articulated an evolving standard of...

  6. TWO “HIDEOUS CONSEQUENCES” AND THE DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
    (pp. 39-78)

    Massachusetts imposed the death penalty on more convicted felons in the two decades following the enactment of its constitution than in any other twenty-year period in its history. Between 1780 and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency of the United States, seventeen men and one woman were legally executed in Boston and an additional sixteen men were put to death elsewhere in the commonwealth. The vast majority of immediate postwar hangings were in response to a sharp rise in the number of burglaries and highway robberies and to widespread fear that the bonds meant to hold society together...

  7. THREE “UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH”: THE FIRST EFFORT TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
    (pp. 79-105)

    The decades from 1830 to the eve of the Civil War were a time of intense activity for opponents of the death penalty. The efforts of a cluster of determined reformers to abolish the death penalty stimulated public debate, legislative action, and a long string of jury nullifications. At the same time, three spotlighted capital trials, two of which led to executions, captured the public’s attention and brought about important legal changes. The chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Lemuel Shaw, furthered the transformation of capital procedure begun by the court in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Shaw’s...

  8. FOUR “THE MONSTER PETITION”
    (pp. 106-136)

    In the years between the Civil War and World War I, Massachusetts was transformed by successive waves of new immigrants and by the development of an industrial society. Yankee farmers and small-town lawyers were pushed to the wings and replaced at center stage by aggressive businessmen and law school–trained attorneys who worked to modernize private law (contract, property, and torts) to keep pace with economic change. During the same period, the Massachusetts legislature enacted a string of progressive reforms, including a ten-hour workday, a minimum-wage law, workmen’s compensation, and protective legislation for working women. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court...

  9. FIVE A “TONG WAR” AND THE SECOND EFFORT TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY
    (pp. 137-168)

    Capital punishment for murder was under attack at the turn of the twentieth century in Massachusetts. Although some feared that non-English-speaking immigrants pouring into the state were especially prone to violence, a campaign to abolish the death penalty led by the Anti-Death Penalty League had at various times won support from Attorney General Hosea Knowlton, Governor Eugene Foss, dozens of legislators, and a galaxy of religious and social leaders. Together with the controversial execution of Charles Tucker in January 1906, a rash of murders in 1903 and 1907 in Boston’s Chinatown splintered this fragile coalition. Fueled in part by anti-Chinese...

  10. SIX SACCO AND VANZETTI
    (pp. 169-207)

    Nothing about the Sacco and Vanzetti case is uncontested except its notoriety. It is the most famous murder case in Massachusetts history and it may legitimately lay claim to being one of the most famous murder trials of the twentieth century. From the summer of 1921, when Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried and found guilty of murdering a paymaster and a guard in South Braintree, until the two Italian immigrants were executed on August 23, 1927, people in Massachusetts and around the world were divided over whether they were guilty or innocent and whether they had received a...

  11. SEVEN THE INSANITY DEFENSE
    (pp. 208-250)

    The legal defense for murder of not guilty by reason of insanity has a venerable and controversial history. One of the basic assumptions of Anglo-American law is that a defendant must have the capability to exercise free will to be held responsible for a criminal act. The legal termmens rea—a state of mind that renders the accused and his act culpable—is a reflection of the fundamental belief that it would be morally reprehensible to execute a person who does not know or understand what he or she did was wrong. The controversy over the insanity defense stems...

  12. EIGHT THE RIGHT TO AN ATTORNEY AND CRIMINAL DISCOVERY
    (pp. 251-272)

    In the decades following the enactment in Massachusetts of a mercy law, criminal procedure was transformed and the way opened to abolishing the death penalty. Led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court of the United States ended legally enforced racial discrimination and strengthened the rights of criminal defendants. The Court fleshed out and extended to the states the code of criminal procedure outlined in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments of the Bill of Rights as well as in the Fourteenth Amendment’s admonition that no one shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law....

  13. NINE CONFESSION: NEITHER FEAR NOR FAVOR
    (pp. 273-295)

    By the sixteenth century a criminal suspect in England could invoke the common-law right against self-incrimination, and about a century later an English court ruled a coerced confession inadmissible as evidence in court. Together, these two aspects created a shield to protect the accused. The privilege against self-incrimination was a legitimate defense against a judge’s questions, but also against all government authorities inside or outside court. Contemporaries linked the right not to give evidence against oneself to freedom of speech, religion, and political liberty. For this reason the right against self-incrimination made its way into the bills of rights attached...

  14. TEN THE RIGHT OF THE ACCUSED TO AN IMPARTIAL JURY
    (pp. 296-329)

    For roughly two decades following the resignation of Chief Justice Earl Warren from the Supreme Court of the United States in 1969, a handful of state appellate courts stimulated a resurgence in both the activism and impact of state courts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) was at the forefront of this development, using the Massachusetts Constitution to rule on a cluster of key constitutional questions. The SJC linked procedural activism to a string of substantive decisions that expanded the rights of the accused beyond those acknowledged by the Supreme Court. In 1979, for example, the SJC prohibited discrimination practiced...

  15. ELEVEN “SUCCESS—AT LONG LAST”
    (pp. 330-354)

    At a noon rally on May 10, 1947, Massachusetts governor Robert Bradford, who had vaulted into the governor’s office after winning a national reputation as a tough-on-crime Middlesex County district attorney, told a cheering crowd on Boston Common that providing subsidies for veterans’ housing was his top priority. Later in the day the governor spoke to reporters about his proposed sales tax. Neither Bradford nor the reporters following the governor that chilly spring day said anything about the executions of Philip Bellino and Edward Gertson. The two men had been electrocuted at the Massachusetts State Prison shortly after midnight for...

  16. TWELVE THE ABOLITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY
    (pp. 355-396)

    During the fifteen years following passage of the mercy bill, Sara Ehrmann fought to win abolition of the death penalty chiefly using the same tactics that had led to the successful passage of alternate sentencing. Generally speaking, the political-social landscape she and abolitionists confronted after 1951 was markedly different from that of the first half of the century. Fewer and fewer people were put to death, especially in the northern states, and by 1966 the number of people supporting the death penalty had fallen to 42 percent, a record low. In Massachusetts, from 1948 to 1972, an unbroken string of...

  17. EPILOGUE: AFTER ABOLITION
    (pp. 397-406)

    After more than fifty years of struggle by death penalty abolitionists, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found capital punishment unconstitutional in 1980 and in 1984. The court’s decisions capped an unofficial moratorium in effect since 1947, when two convicted murderers were executed. In addition to citing the long list of elected governors who refused to implement the law, the court noted the discriminatory impact of race, the Massachusetts Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel or unusual punishment,” and the need to protect a defendant’s right to due process. In the aftermath of the court’s action, several Republican governors eager to pad their...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 407-489)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 490-494)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 495-495)