The death penalty on trial

A GROUP OF DISTINGUISHED ILLINOIS CITIZENS, INCLUDING FORMER SENATOR PAUL SIMON AND ATTORNEY-NOVELIST SCOTT TUROW, did something remarkable last August. They sat in silence while some not-so-famous Illinois citizens talked about capital punishment. The morning hearing offered the American public a rare opportunity to speak its mind about this peculiar institution of ours since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States in 1976.

Lethal systemOne of those who spoke was Costella Cannon, whose son, Frank Bounds, died on Illinois' death row before his sentence could be carried out, denying his guilt until the end. Bounds had been convicted of murder based on a confession that even the state now acknowledges was extracted under torture. (At least nine others currently awaiting execution in Illinois similarly "confessed" after hours of police torture.)

"Don't allow another innocent person to die," Cannon told the commission. "I would rather see the guilty live than to believe that one innocent person died. Visit death row; put that on the top of your agenda. . . . Visit death row, and you'll understand." Cannon's passionate testimony briefly turned the public conference hall in the basement of Illinois' Thompson Center in Chicago into a revival meeting as sporadic cries of support rose from the audience.

But the 12 people sitting on the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment betrayed no emotion, though some of them, it can only be imagined, shared this mother's passion. Responding to what he called "our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row," Illinois Governor George Ryan convened this commission to find out why more innocent people have been released from Illinois' death row than executed since reinstatement. Last January Illinois became the first and, thus far, only state to institute a moratorium on the death penalty.

Deacon George Brooks represented Kolbe House, the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese's ministry to the incarcerated in Cook County. "It is only with the death penalty that a spirit of bitterness and vengeance continues in the criminal justice system," he told the commission.

"Why don't we encourage this spirit in our family or civil courts? Why, in every other aspect of our court system, do we encourage a spirit of reconciliation? Because we know that that spirit of violence and revenge does not work. It does not bring 'closure' to the families. Revenge revictimizes the victim. It prevents healing."

Jean Bishop spoke on behalf of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. "The worst thing for a victim's family is the murder," she said, "but the second worst thing would be to have an innocent person tried, convicted, and executed." Bishop told the panel that if Illinois wants to make criminal justice policy that is truly "pro-victim," it must "abolish a system that cannot help but execute innocent people."

Other speakers exhorted this panel to move beyond the parameters of its mission, arguing that the death penalty process in Illinois could not be reformed, could not be fixed—it could only be abolished.

When the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, its primary concern was the inconsistency of its application throughout the nation. Now, 23 years after its reinstatement, there are no rich men on death row in America—more than 90 percent of death row inmates were too poor to hire an attorney. Just about half (307) of all 657 executions have been conducted in just two states—Texas and Virginia. Meanwhile, America's northeastern states collectively have executed only three people in more than two decades. Can anyone with eyes to see honestly believe that this system has risen above the arbitrariness that so troubled the Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago?

Before this lone public hearing on capital punishment ended, many speakers reminded the committee that it has a historic opportunity to lead the nation in an honest assessment of capital punishment. One hearing in one state that may finally be ready to admit that the death penalty is killing the U.S. justice system. One hearing in one state that could be ready to aknowledge that such a perfectly permanent judgment is better left out of the hands of an imperfect humanity and relinquished to that most pure and merciful judge of us all.

By Kevin Clarke, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.

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