Massachusetts

General Information

Death Penalty: No
Date of Reinstatement (following Furman v. Georgia): November 2, 1982
Date of Abolition: October 18, 1984

Capital: Boston
Population: 6,547,629
Governor: Deval Patrick
Legislative Information: Senate
House of representatives

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DPIC's State Database for information on executions, death row population and other statistics in Massachusetts
History of the Death Penalty
Resources

DPIC's Massachusetts State Podcast

 

Sunset on Cape Cod Bay.  Photo by PapaDunes via flickr.


History of the Death Penalty

Massachusetts was one of the first states to carry out the death penalty in colonial times but has since changed its approach. In early times, hanging was the primary method of execution. Some defendants in the 1600's were executed for religious affiliations. Mary Dyer was just one of the people executed for affiliating with the Quaker religion and there were dozens of individuals, both male and female, executed for witchcraft. In 1900, Massachusetts installed an electric chair to be used in death penalty cases. Electrocution was the most common form of execution in the Commonwealth until capital punishment was abolished in 1984. After the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the state, governors, including Mitt Romney, have tried to reinstate the death penalty. Attempts thus far have been unsuccessful.

Famous cases

John Billington, a colonist who arrived on the Mayflower, was the first person executed in Massachusetts, in 1630. He was hung for killing John Newcomen.

On April 15, 1920, two men, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, were robbed and murdered in Braintree, Massachusetts. The two men charged with the murder, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were Italian immigrants and followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist. Before Sacco and Vanzetti were tried for the murders, Vanzetti was tried and convicted of a separate robbery, despite the testimony of 16 witnesses who provided an alibi for him. Heavy security was put in place for the murder trial, due to fears that other anarchists might try to bomb the courthouse. The prosecution presented evidence that one of the four bullets retrieved from Berardelli's body matched a gun owned by Sacco, though witnesses testified that they saw one man shoot Berardelli four times, suggesting that all four bullets should have come from the same gun. Defense witnesses testified that they were having lunch with Sacco at the time of the robbery and murder, and others said that Vanzetti had been selling fish at that time. When Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of first-degree murder, a capital crime, demonstrations were held in cities throughout Italy and Latin America. Supporters believed that the men had been convicted because of their anarchist beliefs.

In 1925, Celestino Madeiros, an ex-convict awaiting trial for a different murder, confessed to committing the Braintree murders. Lawyers for Sacco and Vanzetti presented an appeal to Massachusetts' highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, but it was denied. In denying the appeal, the court said, "It is not imperative that a new trial be granted even though the evidence is newly discovered and, if presented to a jury, would justify a different verdict." In 1927, after the appeal had been denied, Judge Webster Thayer sentenced the two men to death. The governor denied clemency after a commission he had formed declared that the trial had been fair. Madeiros (who had been convicted of a separate murder), Sacco, and Vanzetti were all executed on August 23, 1927. The following day, protesters demonstrated around the world. Over 10,000 people in Boston viewed Sacco and Vanzetti in open caskets over two days. Fifty years later, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977 Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day.

The last executions to take place in Massachusetts were Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson on May 9, 1947 for the murder of Robert William. Both defendants were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison. Their executions inspired a commission to evaluate the death penalty in Massachusetts to determine the effectiveness.

Milestones in abolition/reinstatement

After Furman v. Georgia, voters in the Commonwealth passed an amendment that allowed the death penalty in 1982. Under this new amendment, the state could not "be construed as prohibiting the imposition of the punishment of death". Later that same year, the legislature passed a bill reinstating the death penalty for first-degree murder.

In Commonwealth v. Colon-Cruz (1984), the Massachusetts law that enabled capital punishment was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that it was not applied fairly, since only defendants who went to trial were eligible; this excluded defendants who plead guilty. 

Other interesting facts

Until 1951, any first degree murder conviction required the death penalty. This changed to provide jury discretion on most murder cases. However, the death penalty was still mandated in murders involving rape or attempted rape.

In total, there have been 345 executions in Massachusetts, including 26 for witchcraft. Nineteen of those executed for witchcraft were hanged in Salem in 1692 as a result of the famous Salem Witch Trials.


 Resources

Department of Corrections

Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty

Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Prosecutors

Public defender's office

Victims' services


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