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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Thinking twice about death penalty, voter initiative

March 13, 2011

Consistent readers of this column know I am for the most part resolute (I try to ignore the ones who say arrogant) in forming and stating opinions, but there are two issues that keep me vacillating: the death penalty and voter initiative. Both beasts reared their heads last week.
My default position on the death penalty is to be against it. It is wrong for the government to kill people. Somewhere deep down I know that.
But every once in a while society is confronted by a malevolent mutant like Michael Woodmansee and it makes you wonder whether there should be exceptions to the rule. Are there some individuals whose behavior is so abhorrent, so beyond the ken of decent humanity, that the rules should not apply to them? That ridding the planet of them is the difficult duty a civil society is called upon to do?
The predictable retort to that is that such a person can be kept in prison, locked safely away from the rest of humanity. Well, not in the case of Michael Woodmansee. He’s getting out. An early release for good behavior, no less.
Judge Susan McGuirl, who was the prosecutor in Woodmansee’s case back in 1982 — seven years after he killed and did unspeakable things to his 5-year-old neighbor, Jason Foreman — told Channel 12 News that everyone involved knew or should have known that Woodmansee would get out of jail someday after a plea bargain led to his being sentenced to 40 years in jail. She said the plea bargain was agreed to in part so the gruesome details of what Woodmansee did to the young boy would not have to be detailed in court.
The price of that was that Woodmansee would not get a life sentence (The death penalty is not an option, if it were, might the parents have held out for a trial that might have achieved that result? We’ll never know.) That means a parole board wouldn’t be a permanent bar from him ever being released from prison. I don’t care how loopy parole boards can get, no one in their right mind would ever raise their hand and say, “Yes, I believe that animal should be released among the populace.”
Instead, Woodmansee’s ultimate release date was left to arithmetic, and arithmetic makes no judgments. Said to be a “model prisoner,” he racked up the maximum time off for good behavior. As a result, Judge McGuirl’s “someday” will come next August.
Unfortunately, we have to let it happen.
Despite his having the best motives, we can’t let Attorney General Peter Kilmartin engineer some sort of retroactive fix that would provide cover for keeping Woodmansee in prison. Kilmartin may only have the best of intentions, but who says the next attorney general will? If we allow the government to start passing laws after the fact to punish behavior retroactively, then we will be just a short distance from being ruled by tyrants.
Likewise, a bill rushed into the General Assembly last week by Warwick Rep. Joseph McNamara allowing for civil commitments of violent sexual predators after they complete prison sentences is also misguided. McNamara’s law would not be retroactive — it would apply only to those convicted after July 1 of this year — but it involves keeping people involuntarily confined (in a mental hospital) for what we think they might do someday. That, too, is a treacherous path for society to walk.
It is not worth it for us to turn ourselves into to that kind of people for the likes of Michael Woodmansee. And that is where I am trapped by my own argument when it comes to the death penalty: Do we want to turn ourselves into THAT kind of people?
“We cannot throw up our hands and lament the possibility of violent sexual offenders, especially those who prey on children, being released into society before they deserve to be there,” McNamara said in a written statement supporting his legislation. “We can, and must, find an appropriate procedure for not allowing unfit individuals to be released into the public, and this legislation provides a legal process to do that.”
We can, and likely will, argue about whether it is appropriate, but the death penalty would be one such procedure. But so would be appropriate prison sentences. I would have no trouble at all with the idea of life sentences for violent sexual predators. If such a person is ever to be allowed out of prison, I would want a human gatekeeper, a judge or a parole board, to make an informed judgment about if or when that would be the right thing to do.
Leaving it to arithmetic is asking for trouble.

Now for voter initiative
O.K. let’s now clear our mental palates with a plain old political problem.
Should the constitutional prerogative to petition the government for a redress of grievances extend to making laws by popular referendum, a/k/a/ voter initiative? That was one of the issues during a marathon hearing of the House Judiciary Committee last week.
Basically, I am a big fan of the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers who wrote it. They got so many things right that still remain right more than two centuries later that my instinct is to defer to their wisdom. They created a republic where the laws would be made by elective representatives of the people. (Yes, they originally arranged for senators to be elected by state legislatures, not directly by the people, but we eventually corrected that. Nobody gets everything right.)
But several years of watching the RI General Assembly up-close makes me think that perhaps in some cases there should be an exception to the rule.
This is not just another beat-down on the legislature. They get enough of that and, truth be told, for all the heat they catch, what they DO is, on the whole, pretty good. It has to be, they same people get re-elected year after year in what can only be described as an expression of the consent of the governed (that’s us).
It is what they DON’T DO that I often find troublesome, and the frequently heavy-handed way in which they don’t do it.
Few have to be reminded of the tawdry way the Senate killed E-Verify legislation last year. A sleight-of-hand parliamentary maneuver was followed by a highly questionable ruling on which side prevailed in a voice vote, and the E-Verify bill disappeared down the General Assembly rabbit hole, never to be seen again.
A bill that would have restored Ethics Commission jurisdiction over the legislative acts of lawmakers? The Senate (once again) simply ignored that one to death in a dazzling display of political arrogance.
The House leadership once again last week reasserted its brute political power in the face of absolutely astounding political cowardice on the part of the rank-and-file members who ceded the power their constituents voted to give them to their political masters.
All that would have been necessary for real and enduring government reform to take root in Rhode Island would have been for 38 members of the House of Representatives to work up the gumption to vote yes Wednesday on a rule change that would require all bills to get an up or down vote in committee. No more of that “held for further study” and never be heard from again garbage. Such reform would have been further advanced if 38 members (with 10 Republicans, you would only need 28 Democrats) had grown the guts to vote that once committees are formed, those committees can elect their own chairmen and chairwomen, not have them hand-picked by the Speaker.
I’m talking about the House in particular because while out on a sick day Thursday I managed to catch a rerun of the floor fight on the House rules on Capitol TV. But the Senate likewise passed their rules on Tuesday.
If the men and women we elect can not summon the political courage to take back the political decision making from the tiny coterie of legislative maybe we the people should take it back ourselves with voter initiative.
The Twilight Zone twist to that is we can’t do so if we cannot get our elected representatives to get their elected leadership to deign to allow it.

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