BOSTON — Massachusetts hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, but during most of its history it allowed capital punishment for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft.

Jurors weighing whether Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should die under the federal death penalty statute or spend the rest of his life behind bars are the latest to do so in a state with a long and tortured history with execution:


Using death as a punishment was common in the state’s earliest days. In one notable case, Mary Dyer was put to death in Boston in 1660 after she was banned by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being a Quaker. Dyer returned several times in defiance of anti-Quaker laws and was eventually hanged. A statue of Dyer sits in front of the Statehouse as a caution against religious intolerance. Capital punishment reached a new fervor a few decades later, when 19 people were hanged and one person crushed to death during the 1692 Salem witch trials.


Perhaps the most infamous Massachusetts death penalty case of the 20th century focused on Italian immigrants and committed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The two were arrested several weeks after a payroll clerk and a security guard were shot and killed during an armed robbery at a Braintree shoe factory. The 1921 trial drew international attention. After they were convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, political dissidents, unionists, Italian immigrants and other supporters – including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay – demonstrated across the United States and Europe arguing the two were targeted for their political beliefs and immigrant status. They were executed in 1927. The case still remains contentious. In 1977, 50 years after the executions, former Gov. Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation declaring that “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed” from Sacco and Vanzetti and their descendants.



In the decades after the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the appetite for capital punishment began to wane in Massachusetts. In 1947, the state carried out its last executions, putting convicted murderers Philip Bellino and Edward Gertson to death in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison. Although capital punishment remained legal, governors refused to sign death warrants over concerns that the penalty offered no more safety for the community than life in prison. The change in heart would set the stage for Massachusetts’ more recent wrangling with the death penalty.


In 1975, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court curtailed capital punishment, holding that a mandatory death sentence for rape-murder constituted cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the state constitution’s Declaration of Rights. In 1982, voters approved a constitutional amendment that would have restored the death penalty and the governor signed a new law also reinstating capital punishment in certain cases. In 1984, the court ruled that law unconstitutional saying it impermissibly burdened a defendant’s right against self-incrimination and trial by jury. The ruling effectively banned the death penalty.


In the 1990s there was a new push to revive the death penalty spearheaded by a series of Republican governors. The effort gained momentum following the 1997 abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley by two men who later received life sentences. A death penalty bill filed in the wake of Curley’s murder failed after a single lawmaker switched his vote during reconsideration.


In 2005 former Gov. Mitt Romney unveiled what he called the “gold standard for the death penalty in the modern scientific age” that would bring back capital punishment for people convicted of terrorism, multiple murders and killing law enforcement officers, using conclusive scientific evidence to ensure only the guilty were executed. The bill failed.

In the days following the Marathon bombing in 2013, lawmakers again debated but ultimately shelved a proposal to reinstate the death penalty


Tsarnaev isn’t the first convicted killer in recent years to face the death penalty for federal crimes committed in Massachusetts.

Gary Lee Sampson confessed to carjacking and killing two men in Massachusetts and killing a third man in New Hampshire in 2001. He was sentenced to death in 2003 by a federal jury in Boston – a sentence that was overturned eight years later. A second sentencing trial is set for later this year. If Sampson or Tsarnaev are ultimately executed, they will join a crowded roster in Massachusetts.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based anti-capital punishment organization, there have been 345 executions in Massachusetts history, 26 for witchcraft.

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