Gov race turns picky, punchy
By James Alan Fox
October 9, 2006

If truth be told, last week ’s gubernatorial debate had about as much excitement as a Masterpiece Theater DVD collection.

Frankly, there was nothing in the political jabs like “My opponent doesn’t respect the will of the people” or “My opponent looks the other way when state contractors hire illegal immigrants” that intrigued me, yet alone scared me into switching my vote.

But now the “gov gloves” are off, with revelations about a payment to a parole-seeking rapist and state jobs for cop killers. The “soft on crime” bell has rung, signaling the final rounds, with Kerry “The Criminologist” Healey needing a knockout of leader Deval “Civil Right Hook” Patrick.

The Healey campaign is hitting hard on Patrick’s role as defense counsel for Carl Ray Songer, who was scheduled to die in the Florida electric chair for the 1973 killing of a state trooper. Patrick’s campaign counter-punched that Healey’s tag-team and running mate had contacted the parole board about a friend charged with assaulting a police officer, and that Healey herself had frequently missed meetings of the Criminal History Systems Board.

Boy, I can hardly wait for the next debate. Candidates, are you ready to rumble?

Of course, the contest for state leadership is infinitely more important than a championship prize fight and should be infinitely more dignified. The “below the belt” politics of last week disgraces not just the gubernatorial candidates, but the entire commonwealth.

As a criminologist, I certainly am excited now that the endless banter about in-state tuition benefits and drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants has shifted to crime and public safety. The discussion, however, should be about platforms and policies, not picky politics featuring exposes of particular episodes taken way out of context and turned into campaign ads.

The critical public safety issues include how the next governor will stand on illegal guns, a problem plaguing our cities virtually every day. By contrast, whether cop killers should be executed is hardly a legitimate litmus test for which candidate will improve the quality of life for citizens of the state.

And more important than whether Carl Ray Songer or any hypothetical (and rare) Massachusetts cop killer of tomorrow deserves the death penalty is how the next governor will grow the ranks of law enforcement in the state.

And now for “the rest of the story” on Mr. Songer.

Deval Patrick, while attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, won an indefinite stay of execution for Songer within hours of the condemned man’s scheduled electrocution. Patrick argued, and the U.S. Federal Appeals Court in Atlanta concurred, that the trial judge in Songer’s 1974 sentencing hearing had not permitted the defendant to present evidence of mitigation, violating his Eighth Amendment protections. In the end, Songer “won” a life sentence, but hardly his freedom.

Regardless of one’s position on capital punishment, reasonable people should agree that constitutional violations and unfair trials need to be exposed and corrected. Deval Patrick should not be blamed for doing his job, and doing it well. We can only hope that our next governor, whoever emerges from the political ring match, will do his or her job equally well by advocating sound criminal justice policy.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at