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Au Pair case played part in defeating death penalty vote

November 7, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ The headlines pushed Massachusetts to the brink of reinstating the death penalty. And it was the headlines that led the state to step back.

A capital punishment bill spurred by a series of grisly slayings fell one vote short Thursday night because of the English au pair case. A Democrat switched his vote, in part because he felt a jury erred in convicting Louise Woodward.

``If I can’t be certain that I’m getting the right guy, I have a very big problem with the death penalty,″ said Rep. John Slattery, adding that his decision came after long talks with people in his district, respected judges, fellow lawyers and even a neighbor.

``What happens to these people that we’re not sure?″ he asked. ``What happens to the Louise Woodwards of the world?″

Slattery, a second-term representative who previously supported the death penalty, turned an 81-79 vote into an 80-80 tie _ blocking one of America’s most liberal states from joining 38 others that endorse capital punishment for murder.

Conservative talk show hosts immediately took to the airwaves to rip his flip-flop. Howie Carr, a columnist at the Boston Herald and a radio host, gave listeners Slattery’s home phone number Thursday night.

The Herald, a tabloid that supports capital punishment, said a weekend editorial would attack Slattery’s last-minute move.

The change of heart prompted police officers to stand guard outside Slattery’s Peabody house in case of a backlash.

In Peabody, a community 13 miles north of Boston, it wasn’t hard to tell where people stood at The Railroad Cafe, which was draped with a bright yellow banner proclaiming ``Louise Must Be Free.″

Like Ms. Woodward, owner Marianne Cox, 58, came to the United States from Europe as a young au pair. ``The death penalty, I think it’s wrong,″ she said in her German accent. ``When I think that could have happened to Louise, I want to cry.″

Repair shop owner Carl Monks said Slattery was wrong to compare hard-core murderers with the au pair.

``These are two different issues we’re talking about,″ he said. ``I think Slattery should have realized that people with murder on their minds can’t be cured. But everyone’s thinking about this nanny trial.″

A wave of public outrage over particularly horrific crimes had fueled the latest push for the death penalty bill.

The most prominent case was that of a 10-year-old Cambridge boy who was lured into a car with the promise of a new bike. He was smothered with a gasoline-soaked rag, and his body was stuffed in a concrete-filled container and dumped in a river.

But then Ms. Woodward was convicted of second-degree murder last week for fatally shaking and slamming a baby in her care. Death penalty opponents used the outrage over the case to point to imperfections in the jury system. Local polls have showed that a majority thought that Ms. Woodward, at the least, should have her verdict reduced to manslaughter.

Judge Hiller B. Zobel could decide as early as Monday whether to uphold the verdict, reduce it or order a new trial or even an acquittal.

Thomas Patterson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said faster traveling news and a public that can respond more quickly with opinions put more pressure on politicians.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Boston Democrat, had wanted to delay the death penalty vote until things calmed down.

``Headlines, by definition, reduce the most complex issue to somewhere between two and five words,″ Finneran said. ``It’s not an appropriate way to decide policy.″

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