Thursday, March 10, 2011

Illinois abolishes the death penalty

I was pleased to read today that the state of Illinois has abolished the death penalty.

I don't dispute the right of the State to execute criminals deserving of such a penalty: but I'm profoundly troubled by the number of people who've been convicted of serious crimes (and some of them sentenced to death), only to be exonerated by subsequent evidence. Illinois has seen more than a dozen such cases, and there've been well over 200 in the whole of the USA.

Illinois Governor Quinn is quoted as saying: "We have found over and over again: Mistakes have been made. Innocent people have been freed. It's not possible to create a perfect, mistake-free death penalty system." I absolutely agree with him. If we can't guarantee that the people we're executing are definitely guilty, beyond any possibility of doubt, then we shouldn't be executing them. At least a life sentence holds out the possibility that subsequent evidence, if it exists, may correct a judicial wrong. If the convicted person has been executed before that evidence can be presented, it's too late.

I know many will accuse me of being 'soft' on crime because of my opposition to capital punishment, but it's not that at all. Give me a system that's absolutely, unfailingly guaranteed to convict only the guilty, and I'll support capital punishment. However, to execute even one innocent person is too many. As long as that risk exists, I'll oppose capital punishment.



suz said...

You took the words right out of my mouth.
Additionally, to anyone who supports the death penalty, ***as it is currently administered in this country,*** I would ask: Since you are funding this process, exactly how much are you personally willing to pay your state to KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE? (while the guilty go free)

Sorry for the hideous sentence structure, can we call it poetic license?

Bill N. said...

While I agree there need to be changes to the administration of the death penaly, I disagree with the complete abolition of it. Consider the case of the Gary Tyson and Randy Greenwalt. Both were convicted murderers. Greenwalt admitted to killing at least two and Tyson killed at least one and is suspected of killing another. When they escaped with help from Tyson's sons, they killed a newlywed couple in Colorado. In Arizona they killed a young Marine, his wife, their infant son, and the Marine's teenage niece. The murders came to an end when there was a shootout at a road block in Arizona. If I remember correctly one of Tyson's sons was killed and two other sons are in jail for life. Greenwalt was captured and subsequently executed. Tyson was found dead a few days later after dying of exposure. Had Tyson and Greenwalt been executed for their first murders, six people would be alive today and Tyson's sons would not be in jail for life. As a former soldier you should realize that sometimes you send soldiers to places where some will be killed so that you can save more. A prime example was sending bombers over Germany and Japan during WWII. It may sound callous but isn't better to kill an innocent person by mistake if it means that you save two or in the case of Tyson and Greenwalt six. The best solution I can think of would be to have an expert panel review all the evidence in death penalty cases including anything that was excluded in the actual trial including all past criminal history, all DNA evidence, etc. I favor experts because you want experts making life and death decisions not amateurs. For a death penaly to be applied the expert panel would have to unanimously agree the physical evidence and not just witness testimony shows that the person convicted is the guilty party.

suz said...

Excellent point, Bill. Let's go a little further. To avoid politicizing the panel, the members should be selected at random, from a pool of qualified experts. Each group could examine a handful of cases before being dismissed, like a jury.
The cost could be covered by speeding up the whole process. After all, the reason for lengthy appeals is to assure the validity of the conviction.
I think this is one of those rare occasions where the provisions in the Constitution should be changed. The denial of irrefutable facts should not be justified by saying. "We met the standards of the Constitution. If that flies in the face of reality, so be it."

Guffaw in AZ said...

I agree with you in spirit, Peter, but for a different reason. I believe in capital punishment, as long as the people running it are more efficient than the Post Office and the IRS. I like Suz comment, above.

Shell said...

"...well over 200 in the whole of the USA."? Out of how many hundreds of thousands of cases? The point missed in quoting that statistic is that we are using the latest technology available to check evidence and free those who were wrongfully convicted. Most countries in the world wouldn't bother with it.

There is nothing in human affairs save death that has ever been or ever will be "...absolutely, unfailingly guaranteed...". Wanting it, hoping for it, desiring it, wishing for it are pipe dreams. We do the very level best we can, learn from our mistakes (we should, anyway), and move on.

Nashville Beat said...


I have been in law enforcement for just about my entire career, from street cop to federal prosecutor, and I do worry about the real, though mercifully rare, conviction of an innocent person for a capital offense. Nevertheless, I submit that there are two persuasive (to me) counterarguments to a complete ban. The first was eloquently set forth by Bill N. in his comment: the danger of the escaped murderer. The other is this: what do you do with the person who commits premeditated murder while imprisoned for life without possibility of parole?

It is a difficult issue, but unlike Bill and Suz, my experience has given me more confidence in juries than in experts. First of all, many people do not realize that newly discovered scientific evidence can be brought to the attention of an appellate court if it is compelling enough. Second, most (though sadly, not all) prosecutors will reopen a case if persuasive evidence of a miscarriage of justice surfaces. I have done it twice, and I am not atypical. Finally, I believe mistrust of the jury system is the result of the skewed reporting that influences the public's understanding of this great tradition.

We often hear of the inexplicable acquittals or the unjust convictions, but the tendency of our media to focus on the anomalous ignores the reality that every day, thousands of ordinary citizens drawn from all segments of society conscientiously strive to do the right thing, and in an overwhelming number of cases, succeed.

I have prosecuted more defendants than I can easily recall, and I have experienced some verdicts that seemed to me to be at variance with the facts, but I have never felt that the jury was not truly trying as hard as it could to live up to its oath.

You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of countries that trust their citizens with that much power. I am proud to be a citizen of one of them.

Peter, you have touched upon a serious topic with no easy answers, and I commend you and the reasoned and polite commenters whose views I have found both interesting and thought-provoking.

suz said...

Shell, I beg to differ. We are NOT doing the very level best we can.
For starters, every single death penalty conviction is hugely politicized. Name one elected prosecutor who would gladly have his reputation damaged by an overturned conviction. Correcting convictions from before DNA analysis was available, is no big deal - "That was a mistake anybody could make." But how many people are sitting on death row because of incompetence and corruption? Because the mayor told the prosecutor, who told the police chief, to GET A CONVICTION! (Any conviction, as long as it sticks - we can't have the public thinking we can't keep them safe!) More than a few, according to history. Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies fight furiously to keep their convictions in place, because when one is overturned, it means somebody screwed up AND cost the taxpayers a ton of money. Talk about a vested interest!

Innocent people are sentenced to death on a regular basis, yet thousands of guilty people who "deserve" it, don't get that sentence, because of money and influence. When that changes, we really will be doing our level best.