In March, the state of Illinois became the sixteenth state to abolish the death penalty. In his remarks after signing the bill, Governor Pat Quinn didn't debate the morality of executing murderers. He didn't discuss whether or not the death penalty deters heinous crimes. He didn't even linger on the fact that all but fewer than 60 nations around the world reject capital punishment. No countries in Europe, except Belarus, practice it; other countries which continue to use the death penalty include Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and, of course, the United States.
Quinn simply said that our system of imposing the death penalty was defective. "Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it," the governor said.
The Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to "serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment," reports that since 1973, more than 130 people have been released from death row after having been found innocent of the crimes which brought them there. About five people per year are released after DNA or other evidence establishes their innocence.
It seems that only in the past decade or so has such information about our criminal justice system's faults, as they relate to capital punishment, been established and revealed, shifting the conversation about capital punishment away from debating morality and toward exposing abuse in the criminal justice system. That is, it's only been in the last 10 or 15 years that we have become aware, as a nation, that issues such as prosecutorial misconduct, eyewitness error, and even the false confessions of those who are mentally ill or intellectually disabled have resulted in the wrongful convictions of innocent people.
Investigative journalist Maurice Possley has had a lot to do with opening our nation's eyes to the problems in the criminal justice system. Possley, a Pulitzer prize-winning author whose most recent book, Hitler in the Crosshairs: a GI's Story of Courage and Faith (Zondervan) will be published later this month, is currently an investigator for the Northern California Innocence Project at the University of Santa Clara's School of Law. Prior to joining the Innocence Project, Possley spent almost 25 years at the Chicago Tribune where, during his tenure, he covered the criminal cases of Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, among many others. Eric Zorn, a Chicago Tribune columnist, raised a virtual "toast" to Possley and his colleagues in a column following Quinn's decision.
I recently spoke with Possley about Illinois Governor Quinn's decision to abolish the death penalty, a decision - not surprisingly - which Possley supports.
"The system isn't as perfect as we think it is," Possley said. And he should know. When we spoke, the Innocence Project's investigative efforts had recently established the innocence of two more people. One had been in prison for more than twenty years for a crime he did not commit. Turning the conversation about the death penalty away from debating its morality to establishing whether it can be used accurately is a positive step, he said.
"No one flippantly says, 'Well, I don't mind if an innocent person is executed.'"
While anti-death penalty activists rejoice in Illinois about the recent repeal, across the country in Connecticut, state legislators who support capital punishment scramble to introduce an amendment to speed up the death penalty process in that state in case the death penalty is repealed.
"We believe that abolishing capital punishment would jeopardize the safety of the people of Connecticut," said Representative Steve Mikutel. "For justice to exist, the punishment must fit the crime."
A new conversation about capital punishment doesn't need to tangle itself around how or whether we are given the right - by God or by society - to exact justice on criminals. It makes us ask, if the inmates on Connecticut's death row are executed quickly to circumvent the repeal of capital punishment there, will innocent people be killed?
"I might want to kill a person who has murdered one of my loved ones," Possley said. "But that doesn't mean it's right. Do I want him to be locked up for the rest of his life? Yes. Do I want him to repent? Yes. I don't think anyone is beyond redemption in God's eyes, no matter how bad they are. When we kill someone, we've decided that they are beyond God's redemption. I can't accept that."