GOP Senate Candidate Mike Sullivan: Mr. Death Penalty

It’s time to pay a little attention to the U.S. Senate race on the GOP side. Let’s meet candidate Michael J. Sullivan and learn about the big role that the death penalty has played in his political career.

A GOP State Representative from Abington, Sullivan was in the right place at the right time when, in 1995, the Plymouth County District Attorney, William O’Malley, died after suffering a heart attack. Sullivan’s outstanding qualification to succeed O’Malley, in the view of Governor William Weld, was his enthusiasm for the death penalty, one of Weld’s biggest legislative ambitions. The state’s 11 district attorneys were divided on the death penalty issue, and Weld wanted to counter the death penalty opponents among them as well as Attorney General and former Middlesex County D.A. Scott Harshbarger, who had denounced the death penalty as “simplistic, arbitrary, misguided, ineffective and costly.” So the strong support Sullivan had demonstrated for Weld’s crime-fighting agenda in the Legislature earned him the nod. “We’re confident that DA Sullivan will be a big-foot crime fighter in Plymouth County,” Weld told the Globe.

The hopes of Governors Weld and Cellucci for death penalty legislation in Massachusetts were not realized. But in 2001, when Sullivan was sworn in for his next job as the United States Attorney for Massachusetts, he already had plans to bring the death penalty to the state. He took steps to transfer one of his Plymouth County murder cases from state court to federal court because the defendant, if convicted in federal court, would be subject to the death penalty under a federal carjacking statute. Sullivan knew he had the backing of Attorney General John Ashcroft to have the defendant tried in federal rather than state court — Ashcroft had abandoned the policy of his predecessor, Janet Reno, to prohibit federal prosecutors from seeking capital punishment for the sole reason that, in the state where the trial was to be held, there was no death penalty statute on the books. Sullivan’s prosecution was successful and the defendant, Gary Lee Sampson, was sentenced to death.

These days, Michael Sullivan still works for John Ashcroft, but their private practice specializes in areas such as white collar defense, so there’s lots less talk about the death penalty. It doesn’t even make the “issues” list on the Mike Sullivan for Senate website. This makes it a little easier for Sullivan to take a states’ rights position on marriage (“consistent with my federalist view, I believe that it is up to the people of each individual state to define marriage”). A little awkward when people remember that he once favored ignoring his state’s position on the death penalty.

And in case you are curious about Gary Lee Sampson, the defendant who was sentenced to death in federal court in 2003, a judge awarded him a new trial in 2011 after finding that one of the original jurors had misled the court about her ability to be impartial. Current U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is appealing that decision. Like Scott Harshbarger once said, the death penalty is “simplistic, arbitrary, misguided, ineffective” — and costly.”

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