Moratorium to Abolition: Living Without Death in Illinois?

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  , ,   
ended months of delay by signing into law the remaining
section of Illinois’ death penalty reform legislation. The
final provision set the disciplinary standards for police
officers accused of lying in homicide cases, which would
result in their decertification only if the Illinois Labor
Relations Board could prove the testimony to be false.
This provision completed a legislative package that called
for stringent new rules for conducting police line-ups,
greater access to police field notes by the defense, abolishing
executions of the mentally retarded, a reduction in the
number of situations that qualify a convicted murderer
for the death penalty, and greater power to the Illinois
Supreme Court to overturn a death sentence if justices
determined it was not called for in a particular case.
Despite the passage of these reforms, Blagojevich did not
lift the state’s moratorium on executions enacted in 2000
by former Governor George Ryan.
“What’s important here is that we do justice, and doing
justice means that we make sure that the system doesn’t
make mistakes, particularly when you’re talking about
something that is literally life and death,”Blagojevich stated.
“We have to give these reforms a
chance to be put into practice, and
then we’ll evaluate them over a period
of time.” Therefore, the citizens
of Illinois must wonder not if, but
when the death penalty will resume
in the state.
When the moratorium is lifted, it
will be an extension of the people’s
will, as recent polling of the state has
found support for the death penalty
fluctuating between 58% and 65%.
This fits cozily with the October
2003 Gallup Poll that found national
support for the death penalty at
64%. Illinois opinion is not unlike
the 55% of our neighbors in Michigan,
the 57% of Minnesotans, or
54% of Wisconsin residents, who
support the death penalty. Yet,Michigan,Minnesota, and
Wisconsin abolished the death penalty in the late 19th
and early 20th Century.
This discord among states exposes many promises for
Illinois to become the thirteenth state to outlaw executions
by following the example of Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa,
Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North
Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin,
and complete the transition from moratorium to
abolition. First, we are reminded that most modern
polling data is generated in the abstract, and when people
actually consider the death of another human being, their
support for the death penalty wanes. This is evident
when alternatives are given to the death penalty. National
support for the death penalty drops to 50% if the alternative
of life without parole is an option – in Illinois it drops
to 43% and in Michigan it drops to 35%.
More importantly, the difference among states between
sentiment and action demonstrates the fundamental facet
that continues to propel the debate over the death penalty:
emotion. This is clear as we remember that the arguments
surrounding capital punishment have remained the same
for hundreds of years. In 1764, Cesare Beccaria pronounced
“the death penalty cannot be useful because of
the example of barbarity it gives men, it is absurd that the
laws, which are an expression of public will, which detest
and punish homicide, should themselves commit it.”
In the years that have followed, the dominant arguments
have been clouded in gray. Our pious leaders and
scriptures produce confusion and contradiction.
Research has attempted to show that the death penalty
deters crime, or conversely teaches violence to the public
– but both theories have never been credibly substantiated.
Advocates of the death penalty are told that it brings
“closure” to the worst pain and sorrow. Yet, closure is not
a midnight event in a room devoid of humanity and suffocated
by its silence; closure is a constructed mirage of
false justification that prosecutors and politicians sell to
victims’ families. No one ever returns to normal after
personal tragedy, our only means of survival can be found
by fighting the anger and bitterness, and transcending the
pain to find a positive place that helps us lead a healthy
life. Thus, all that we know with certainty is that the sentence
of death has been doled out arbitrarily in the United
States for crimes committed, but not arbitrarily to the
condemned, who are overwhelmingly our poor and/or
minority neighbors gravely misrepresented at trial by
inadequate and often incompetent defense.
The death penalty debate rolls on, fueled by the power
of anger, hatred, bitterness, and vengeance. So, why has
this emotional juggernaut not consumed the twelve states
that have abolished capital punishment? A legislative
term seldom goes by in all of these states without introduction
of legislation for the reinstatement of the death
penalty,which is summarily defeated by an overwhelming
majority. Not too long ago after the horrific discovery of
Jeffrey Dahmer’s Milwaukee apartment in 1991, the dairy
farmers and Packer fans heard calls on the capital floor of
Madison demanding justice, demanding death. One
Republican member of the assembly conducted an informal
telephone poll of voters, and
claimed 84% favored a return to
capital punishment. Those arguments
were silenced in the following
months as Milwaukee’s crime rate
dropped sharply in nearly all categories
of crime. Likewise, Alaska
and Michigan are consistently at the
top of states with the highest murder
rates, but legislation for reviving
the death penalty never finds widespread
support in either state.
Politicians in abolitionist states
have the burden of capital punishment
lifted by their constituencies
as generations of citizens have been
weaned off the numbing culture of
death that develops in states that
employ capital punishment. The
publication of America without the Death Penalty in
2002 by John Galliher and his colleagues supported this
conclusion through a combination of exhaustive periodical
research, historical review of government documents,
and extensive interviews that produced a rich mosaic of
each states’ history, cultural tradition and resolve to abolish
the death penalty, which is carried from generation to
generation. This is Illinois’ greatest hope; as the moratorium
continues, our citizens can begin to live and learn of
life without the death penalty.
However, the passage of death penalty reform legislation
and the recent lawsuit filed by Illinois Attorney General
Lisa Madigan to overturn Governor Ryan’s mass
purging of Illinois’ death row threatens this opportunity.
Fortunately, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Ryan’s
clemencies on January 23, 2004; yet, this is not an end but
the beginning to reinstate the death penalty. The paradox
of death penalty reform is that execution of such a penalty
requires that which humanity can never offer: perfection.
There are no policies or laws that ensure an innocent
life will not be put to death under any system of capital
To date, the continuing cycle of death in Illinois has
been halted for over three years. Over the same period,
nine countries around the world have abolished the death
penalty including Chile, Poland, and Georgia – 42 countries
in the last 15 years. Still, countries including the
United States,Nigeria, Egypt, and Iran continue killing its
citizens in the name of justice. The state of Illinois has an
opportunity to turn off the switch for good, and strengthen
a new covenant for humanity.

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