Editorial: Illinois should abolish capital punishment

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The death row population in Illinois grew to 16 on Thursday with the death sentence given Brian Dugan by a DuPage County jury for the 1983 rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.

In the pantheon of Illinois criminals, Dugan ranks with John Wayne Gacy in deserving the title “monster.”

“The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett said after the jury handed down its sentence. “Brian Dugan is the worst of the worst.”

The idea that some crimes are so heinous that they can only be punished by death is the fundamental argument on which support for capital punishment is built. We won’t dispute the heinousness of the crime for which Dugan is sentenced to die. And he confessed to the Nicarico killing while already serving life sentences for the abduction, rape and killing of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman and Donna Schnorr, 27.

But Brian Dugan is not the model case for capital punishment that death penalty advocates in Illinois would like him to be. If anything, this case further illustrates the impossible situation Illinois faces in justifying its retention of capital punishment.

If Dugan, who killed three people, is “the worst of the worst,” how do we describe James Degorski and Juan Luna, who were convicted of killing seven people in cold blood at a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in Palatine in 1993? A jury in 2007 gave Luna a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Last month, another jury did the same for Degorski.

And what about someone who drowns his girlfriend’s three young children by putting them in a car and pushing the car into a lake? To us, that is the act of a monster, “the worst of the worst.” Yet a McLean County jury in 2006 gave Maurice LaGrone a life sentence rather than the death penalty after convicting him of first-degree murder in the deaths of 6-year-old Christopher Hamm, 3-year-old Austin Brown and 23-month-old Kyleigh Hamm in September 2003.

To us, these cases illustrate the impossibility of just and fair administration of capital punishment.

But more than that, the Nicarico murder case should serve as a detailed dissertation on the perils of capital punishment. We now know that Dugan committed that murder. He confessed, and DNA evidence proved it. But for more than 10 years, prosecutors believed two men — Alejandro Hernandez and Rolando Cruz — killed Nicarico. Cruz and Hernandez served a decade on death row before they were exonerated in 1995.

Illinois’ death penalty record from 1976 until 2000 was abysmal: 12 executions, 13 exonerations. The executions stopped in 2000 when Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium that still stands.

A slew of reforms instituted in the years since now provide safeguards against execution of the innocent. They can’t guarantee that an innocent person will be put to death, but they do guarantee that Illinois’ capital punishment system is more expensive, cumbersome and resource-draining than ever before. Dugan’s attorneys have already indicated they will appeal his sentence, a process that likely will take well over a decade.

We believe the real problem with capital punishment is that it is meted out as an act of revenge, not an act of justice. It is not delivered uniformly according to criminal codes, but by the caprice of individual juries. That’s why Brian Dugan can be killed by the state but the Brown’s Chicken massacre killers and Maurice LaGrone can’t.

Our justice system can never define “the worst of the worst.” It can’t codify revenge. Illinois, which sent 13 innocent people to death row in less than 14 years, can never guarantee it won’t happen again. As our moratorium on executions nears its 10-year anniversary, it’s time for Illinois to recognize this and formally abolish capital punishment.

State Journal-Register