Editorial: Death penalty cannot be reformed
The Illinois State Bar Association minced no words in voting to support abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.
“The application of the death penalty in Illinois has been demonstrated to be flawed beyond any doubt. Our position is that the death penalty is not fixable and should be discontinued. To do otherwise would invite the grossest miscarriage of justice imaginable, the death of an innocent person,” said newly-installed ISBA president Jack C. Carey of Belleville after the June 28 vote by the bar’s 201-member governing body.
That is an opinion this page has long held. We commend the ISBA, which counts 35,000 attorneys as members, for taking a strong and decisive stand.
The ISBA had long been on record supporting the many capital punishment reforms that have been implemented since then-Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions in 2000. That part was easy. There was never any question that a system with a record of 12 executions and 13 wrongful convictions needed serious reform.
But as the years have passed with the reforms written and the moratorium still in effect, Illinois is coming to grips with the real challenge: How are we supposed to re-start a system that nearly killed 13 innocent people? Can we ever be sure that it won’t happen again?
Ultimately, the questions about the complex logistics of Illinois’ capital punishment system led to a discussion of the nature of capital punishment itself. In addition to never being foolproof regarding the conviction of innocent defendants, capital punishment also represents a foray of our legal system away from the business of defining and administering justice and into the task of exacting revenge.
And revenge, we believe, has no place in our justice system.
In December, New Jersey abolished capital punishment. Like Illinois, it had enacted a cumbersome and expensive system that was designed to guard against wrongful executions. Ultimately, New Jersey decided that the system simply was not worth the strain it put on courts and state coffers. More importantly, it found capital punishment itself “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
For all practical purposes, the death penalty has been abolished in Illinois since 2000. Though there are 14 people now on Death Row, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said he has no plans to lift the moratorium on executions. We can’t imagine willing to endure the controversy that would greet a lifting of the moratorium, but even then it would take years before the state actually executed someone. That would create a brand new firestorm, and, again, we can’t foresee a governor willing to sign off on the first execution in a state with a record like that of Illinois.
One challenge to abolishing the death penalty is defeating the myth that supporting the death penalty means you are tough on crime while opposing it makes you weak. Support for the death penalty has long been a key component of campaign literature for candidates protraying themselves as no-nonsense, law-and-order types. We find that stance simplistic and insulting to voters, and we hope the strong wording of the ISBA statement will help dispel that myth.
We applaud the ISBA’s aggressive new stance. It’s our hope that its position will stimulate serious discussion in the Statehouse about doing away with capital punishment in Illinois for good.The Illinois State Bar Association minced no words in voting to support abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.