STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 8, 2019 (State House News Service) — Sitting with grieving family members, two lawmakers renewed a push Tuesday to re-establish the death penalty in Massachusetts for a narrow set of offenders: people convicted of murdering a law enforcement officer.
The bill (H 3773) filed by Rep. Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton would give the state the option of seeking the death penalty for anyone 18 years or older who “murders a law enforcement officer … either knowing that the victim was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties or in retaliation for performance of his or her duties, or both.” The bill defines law enforcement officer as “a correction officer or a person exercising the authority of a police officer, sheriff, or deputy sheriff.”
O’Connell was joined at a Judiciary Committee hearing by the mother and widow of Weymouth police Sgt. Michael Chesna, who was killed in the line of duty in July 2018. O’Connell also invoked the line of duty deaths of Yarmouth police Sgt. Sean Gannon, who was killed on the job in April 2018, and Auburn police officer Ronald Tarentino Jr., who was killed in the line of duty in 2016.
“The people who committed these crimes, there is no question of their guilt and we need to really stand with law enforcement and send a strong message that we do not tolerate the murder of any of our law enforcement officers,” said O’Connell, a Republican who was first elected to the House in 2010.
The man accused of killing Tarentino, Jorge Zambrano, was fatally shot by police in a subsequent standoff. Thomas Latanowich faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of Gannon, but he has not yet been tried or convicted. Emanuel Lopes, accused of killing Chesna and an elderly witness, is also awaiting trial and has not yet been convicted.
Massachusetts officially banned the death penalty in 1984 but capital punishment has not been carried out in the Bay State since 1947. Over the years, attempts to revive the death penalty here have either not gained traction or been voted down by lawmakers.
“I don’t believe the authors of our Constitution ever intended us to be limited in terms of what we can apply the death penalty to, certainly not to protect law enforcement officers,” Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican, said.
Maryann Chesna, the mother of the Weymouth officer killed on duty, said she is a “complete supporter” of O’Connell’s bill because it could provide a deterrent to criminals who shuffle in an out of the justice system.
“The justice system seems to me to be broken. There is no consequence, it’s arrest and release, arrest and release. People are being taken in and within hours they’re out, they’re on probation, they’re out on bail,” she told the Judiciary Committee. “Nobody follows through, nobody knows what’s going on, nobody seems to care.”
O’Connell said her bill is supported by more than a dozen law enforcement associations around the state. In the Legislature, the bill has four co-sponsors, including Democrat David Robertson from Tewksbury.
“We need to stand by the families who suffer a lifetime of anguish at the loss of their loved ones and we need to let them know that we hold the lives of their loved ones in higher regard than that of criminals. Allowing capital punishment will help law enforcement do their job, it will save lives and it will help law enforcement keep our families safe,” O’Connell said.
Gov. Charlie Baker has previously voiced support for capital punishment for the killing of a police officer, though he has acknowledged the idea is unlikely to gain traction.
“There just aren’t a lot of jobs, it’s so hard for me to think of ones where people literally every day potentially walk into a life-threatening situation where someone can just take them out in what would seem to be the most routine circumstance of that particular job,” Baker said last year when asked about his position on a WGBH radio show. “For that reason and that reason only, I believe that for people who take these people out, they deserve to be held to a very high standard and for me that standard would be death.”
Baker said he understands “there are huge constitutional issues associated with this” and said his administration has talked with the Legislature and legal scholars about a possible bill.
The governor said he has “a particular point of view here and I get the fact that it’s not one that’s shared by everybody and I’m OK with that.”
“We get the fact that it is a tall order and a high hill to climb but I just can’t think of anybody else who — literally every single day — puts themselves in a position where they’re vulnerable to this sort of thing and they deal with people who in many cases don’t care, and that bothers me,” Baker said.