Thursday, January 13, 2011

Illinois death penalty dilemma

In the closing hours of its lame duck session this week, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill ending the death penalty here. Governor Patrick Quinn has not said whether he will sign it. Liberals are rejoicing; prosecutors are outraged. I'm torn.

There are cases where the crimes are so horrible, so heinous, and where the accused's guilt is so clear, so certain (sometimes to the point where the criminal doesn't merely confess, he brags of his crime) that the death penalty seems entirely too lenient.

On the other hand, over drinks in a bar one day, a fellow lawyer made what I think is a tremendous argument against the death penalty. "Have you ever won a case you thought you thought you should have lost?" he asked. "Have you ever lost a case when you should have won?"

Well, sure, I said. Who hasn't? Juries do strange things. Courts make odd rulings. You stand up to speak -- and trip all over your tongue.

"Well, what makes you think that can't happen in a death penalty case?"

Makes you think, doesn't it?

The problem with abolishing the death penalty is finding a suitable alternative. Let me illustrate by referring to the infamous case of Richard Speck. Speck systematically raped and murdered eight student nurses on Chicago's southeast side on July 13, 1966. He was identified by the one young woman he missed, Cora (Corazon) Amurao, who hid under a bed during the carnage.

Speck was tried and sentenced to death. The linked article in Wikipedia explains what happened after (footnotes omitted):
On June 28, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court (citing their June 3, 1968 decision in Witherspoon v. Illinois) upheld Speck's conviction but reversed his death sentence, because more than 250 potential jurors were unconstitutionally excluded from his jury because of their conscientious or religious scruples against capital punishment. The case was remanded back to the Illinois Supreme Court for re-sentencing.

On June 29, 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, so the Illinois Supreme Court's only option was to order Speck re-sentenced to prison by the original Cook County court.

On November 21, 1972, in Peoria, Judge Richard Fitzgerald re-sentenced Speck to 400 to 1,200 years in prison (8 consecutive sentences of 50 to 150 years). He was denied parole in seven minutes at his first parole hearing on September 15, 1976, and at six subsequent hearings in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1990.
It's that last sentence on which I'd like to focus your attention.

Each parole hearing was, of course, covered extensively on the Chicago TV news. The images of the increasingly feeble parents of Speck's victims at each successive hearing, forced to relive the horror of their children's deaths, time after time after time, made a powerful impression on me. They'd been punished more severely, I thought, than Speck.

And Speck never had a chance for parole, you may say, and you may be right. His crimes were so outrageous and so highly publicized that no one in authority would risk the public backlash that would follow were he let go.

But what of all the victims' relatives in all the less highly publicized cases? Could they risk boycotting parole hearings, trying to spare themselves the pain of reliving their loved one's death?

If you told me -- if you promised me -- that, for the most horrifying offenses, the offenders would be locked up and never given the opportunity for parole, I could accept that as an alternative to the death penalty. The State might even save money, for a time, by not having to litigate the interminable appeals of Death Row inmates.

But -- I'm afraid -- a new generation of reformers would eventually spring up, crying that life without parole is too harsh a sentence. And the interminable appeals would start up all over again.

1 comment:

Dave said...

"But -- I'm afraid -- a new generation of reformers would eventually spring up, crying that life without parole is too harsh a sentence. And the interminable appeals would start up all over again."

In our lobby we have a now outdated coffee table book from the Innocence Project, each two pages a picture and a story of someone wrongly convicted of a felony, many murders.

If we get rid of the death penalty, something I don't think will happen anytime soon, then we can argue about the Eighth Amendment implications of live without.

In the meantime, I've had those wins and losses too. I think God should be in charge of life and death. We do a really bad job of it when we meddle.