Shaken by a monthlong wave of crimes that include the rape and slaying of a 10-year-old boy, Massachusetts took a step Tuesday toward becoming the 39th state to have capital punishment.
After a day of contentious debate, the state House passed a death penalty bill, 81-79, causing an eruption of cheers in the normally staid chamber.
While the Senate has passed a death penalty bill three times this decade, including earlier this month, the measure had always died by a narrow margin in the House. The House version now goes to committee to be reconciled with the Senate bill.
Before the House vote, lawmakers predicted the gruesome slaying of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley would change enough minds in this liberal state to get the bill passed this time.
"The people overwhelmingly support this because they want this violence to end, they want justice," said acting-Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican who has pushed a death penalty bill for the past seven years.
Two men are accused of luring the boy into their car with promises of a new bike, smothering him with a gasoline-soaked rag and then sexually molesting the corpse. The boy's body, stuffed in a concrete-filled tub, was pulled from a river earlier this month.
As the House began debating, the boy's father, Robert Curley, issued a warning to death penalty opponents:
"The people want it. The people are the ones who put you in there. If it doesn't get done today, then enjoy your time here in the Statehouse, because you may be gone the next time."
Massachusetts held its last execution in 1947. The state's high court threw out the most recent death penalty law in 1984, ruling that it could be applied unevenly.
The push only gained momentum during the past month as three mothers were killed, one gunned down in front of her children at a bus stop. Another was strangled along with her two sons, while the third was bludgeoned to death and her body hidden in a 50-gallon container.
An Associated Press survey of lawmakers last week found that they opposed capital punishment 82-78. But several lawmakers said privately they would probably switch their vote depending on the language of the bill.
Before Tuesday's vote, Rep. William Galvin, a Democrat, did just that, saying he would vote yes after voting against the death penalty in 1995.
"I have struggled with this, but I have come to the conclusion after many sleepless nights that there must be a just penalty," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, animals like that, what they did to that boy, what they did to that mother of two in front of her children, animals like that deserve the ultimate penalty _ they deserve death."
The Senate version allows the death penalty for 12 crimes, including killing a police officer. The House version expanded it to 15 crimes, including domestic violence murders.
"Will we become the 39th state in the union to say, "If you steal somebody else's life, stand by, you face the risk of forfeiting your own life?' " Rep. Paul Haley, a Democrat who supports the death penalty, said at the start of the debate.
Opponents questioned whether capital punishment serves as a deterrent. Some warned that reinstating it would be wrong in a state that prides itself on what it considers enlightened government.
"A vote to reinstate the death penalty would be another step in isolating our country from the civilized world," said Democratic Rep. Gail Canderas.
A Boston Herald poll Tuesday showed that 74 percent of Massachusetts voters back a death penalty for those who kill a child. Some 40 percent said they would be less likely to re-elect their representative if he or she voted against the bill.