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National Perspective | THE LAW

Grisly Murder Fuels Death Penalty Debate

November 17, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Death penalty opponents here realized a narrow victory last year when a push to reinstitute capital punishment lost by a single vote in the state House of Representatives. With the conviction last week of one of two defendants in the especially horrific murder of a 10-year-old child, that margin may grow shakier still.

"Clearly, the case has had a major impact," said newly elected Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci.

In a fractious campaign against Democrat--and death penalty supporter--Scott Harshbarger, Cellucci pledged to return capital punishment to Massachusetts, one of only 12 states without the death penalty.

Among those who lent support to Cellucci was Robert Curley, a firetruck repairman whose son, Jeffrey, was lured to his death in 1997 with the promise of a new bicycle. A 22-year-old Cambridge neighbor of the Curley family, Salvatore Sicari, last week was convicted of first-degree murder in the Curley case. Sicari's friend, Charles Jaynes, accused of smothering the child with a gasoline-soaked rag when Jeffrey refused his sexual advances, will be tried Nov. 30.

The governor described Jaynes and Sicari as "walking advertisements for the death penalty."

Public outrage over the boy's death accelerated as details of the killing became known. Jaynes apparently had followed the child, writing in his diary about Jeffrey's "crystal-blue eyes."

Jaynes told police he and Sicari stuffed the boy's body in a 50-gallon plastic container. Sicari said they topped off the container with concrete and dumped it into a river in Maine, where authorities later retrieved it. Death-penalty supporters in the Legislature swiftly seized on the killing to promote their cause. A citizens' petition in favor of capital punishment quickly attracted 60,000 signatures.

After the state Senate passed a 1997 death penalty bill, the measure was defeated by a single vote in the lower house. Cellucci campaigned vigorously against the legislator who cast the deciding vote, John Slattery, but Slattery was overwhelmingly reelected this month.

Although lawmakers are certain to place a death penalty measure on the agenda, the election of 20 new legislators leaves passage open to question.

"I think it's extremely close, too close to call," said Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast regional director for Amnesty International USA, which lobbies against the death penalty on grounds that it amounts to government-sponsored torture.

In New England, only Connecticut and New Hampshire have the death penalty. Throughout New England, no one has been executed since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1972.

With its long-standing aversion to the death penalty, Massachusetts is "sort of sui generis"--that is, unique--said USC law professor Michael H. Shapiro. "There is a phenomenon of salience," he said. "People see things differently when it ceases to be an abstraction and becomes concrete."

Sicari was sentenced to the state's mandatory maximum punishment for first-degree murder, life in prison without the possibility of parole. Legislation to resume the death penalty thus would not apply to these defendants, since punishment is based on the law in effect when a crime is committed.

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