BOSTON — As Massachusetts governor, Republican Mitt Romney set himself a daunting challenge: 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 leery of capital punishment.
Making the task even more difficult, the push by Mr. Romney — who is now running for president — came in 2005 at a time of growing national skepticism about the death penalty. Just two years earlier, Illinois Gov. George Ryan cleared his state’s death row after the death sentences of several inmates had been overturned.
Mr. 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.”
In trying to set a new and higher bar, Mr. Romney 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 didn’t use 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,” Mr. Romney said at the time.
Mr. Romney’s handling of the death penalty issue opened a window into the type of management style he could bring to the White House if elected. He hand-picked a commission and outlined his goals in broad terms. Then he turned the panel’s recommendations into a bill that ultimately failed to get through the legislature. But his decision to fight an uphill battle on an issue that had begun to lose its urgency also showed Mr. Romney wasn’t afraid of a political fight.
His first step was to pull together a panel of legal scholars, prosecutors, crime-lab officials, a medical geneticist and forensic scientist Henry Lee, who played a key role in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other highly publicized cases.
One of those heading up the panel was Joseph Hoffmann, a law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. Mr. Hoffman said Mr. Romney gave the group a free hand, but he suggested they focus on harnessing “the power of science” to improve on death penalty laws in other states.
“He said, ‘This is completely up to you.’ We were given an amazing amount of discretion and leeway,” he said. “He wanted us to be free to discuss this, talk about it and propose any ideas, any improvement, any processes that would make this the best death penalty anyone had ever proposed.”
The bill Mr. Romney filed adopted many of the panel’s recommendations.
It 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.
Even though Massachusetts didn’t formally abolish capital punishment until 1984, the famously liberal state hadn’t put anyone to death since 1947. Democrats in the legislature cited human error and prejudice among reasons to steer clear of reinstating it.
“Errors have been made and will continue to be made,” Rep. John Keenan, a Democrat and descendant of one of the victims of the Salem witch trials, said during debate on the bill.
Others saw political motives in Mr. Romney’s efforts.
“There was no way the Massachusetts legislature was going to pass a death penalty bill,” state Rep. David Linsky, a Democrat who opposed the bill, said. “It was all about setting up his future conservative credentials outside Massachusetts.”
The bill was defeated on a 99-53 vote in the House after more than four hours of impassioned debate.