Record Retrospective: 2L Tim Kaine Speaks Out Against the Death Penalty

This article by Joyce Tichy, originally titled “Students Lobby Against the Death Penalty,” was published in the Record on March 19, 1982.

“If we’re trying to teach that killing is wrong, the death penalty isn’t the way to accomplish that goal.” So says Tim Kaine, 2L, who with Leto Copeley, 2L, is organizing HLS students to lobby against re-institution of the death penalty in Massachusetts.


Photo by Adam Eisgrau

According to Kaine, the issue has received widespread political attention since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Suffolk District Court v. Watson in Oct., 1980. The court there held that capital punishment is a violation of the Massachusetts state constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because its implementation has been arbitrary and because it violates current standards of decency. However, the state’s legislature and Governor King have moved to nullify the court’s holding by amending the state constitution to provide expressly for the death penalty as a sentencing option.

The Massachusetts legislature has already gone part way in carrying out this effort. Under Massachusetts law, the legislature must vote in two successive terms to submit a constitutional amendment to the public. After its second vote, the state’s citizens must vote on the issue through a general referendum. The legislature voted in favor of the referendum last term, and will likely cast its second vote by mid-May.

Kaine and Copeley, like students at other Massachusetts law schools, are working to prevent the legislature from voting in favor of the referendum a second time. They are coordinating their fellow students’ activities under the aegis of the Massachusetts Campaign Against Restoration of the Death Penalty, an organization formed in May of 1981 after a conference on the death penalty was held at the Law School. Students are also doing phone bank work, raising $700 per week to help the Campaign finance its lobbying efforts.

Harvard students’ support has taken a number of forms in recent months. Kaine lists several research projects that students have done on relevant issues, such as the brutalizing effect of the death penalty on the criminal justice system, the arbitrary aspect of the punishment and the relative social costs of death sentencing versus life imprisonment. A second major effort by law students was the petition drive at the end of February. In three days, students collected 700 signatures for a petition requesting the state’s legislature not to submit the death penalty referendum to the public.

Should the legislature vote for the referendum in May, Kaine expects that the Campaign will concentrate its efforts on educating the state’s citizens about the negative ramifications of re-instituting the death penalty. The referendum would come before the public in November, when ballots are cast in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Kaine hopes that more law students will become involved in the lobbying effort, since he sees the matter as both a legal and a moral issue. He points to the death penalty’s sorry history in Massachusetts, which has encompassed the results of witch trials and the Sacco- Vanzetti case. While all judicial decisions contain the possibility of error, he emphasizes, none other is both so arbitrary and so irrevocable as the decision to impose the death penalty.