There is no question that the death penalty, as administered by the state of Illinois, has been unfair.

There is no question that the death penalty, as administered by the state of Illinois, has been unfair.

For the past ten years, there has been a moratorium on state executions because former Gov. George Ryan determined that too many errors have been found in the process, and too many people have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes, meaning they were executed in error. There is also no question that too many of those slated for the chair were minorities.

That is why it is especially gratifying to see that the Illinois legislature has done away with the death penalty, moving a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk. Quinn has been a supporter of the death penalty “when applied carefully and fairly,” but we hope he recognizes that there is nothing fair about executing a human being.

Oh, we’re not soft on crime, or bleeding hearts. Some crimes call for an ultimate penalty. Some criminals are never going to be rehabilitated. Those criminals should pay the state’s harshest penalty.

But we recognize that in Illinois, the death penalty was not “applied carefully and fairly.”

Some in the legislature argued that the system could be “fixed” to prevent the wrong people from being executed. Gov. Ryan didn’t think the system could be fixed, which is why he granted clemency to 164 Death Row inmates upon leaving office.

This is a system where the wrong people get convicted, where Lt. Jon Burge was allowed to coerce confessions from innocent men through brutality. Some of those men spent decades in jail before they were exonerated. If they had been sentenced to death, the state – in fact, we, the people – would be responsible for the wrongful death of someone who didn’t commit the crime. It is estimated that 20 people have been sent to Death Row in Illinois and have later been exonerated. Those are the errors that have been caught, the lives that have been saved. According to officials, there are 15 people currently on Illinois’ Death Row.

With so many errors in a system that may have already taken too many innocent lives, we are glad to see Death Row dismantled. The Senate voted 32-25 to approve the ban, even with the backdrop of the mass murder in Tucson, Arizona three days earlier. Some opponents of the ban pointed to that incident as one where the death penalty is warranted. Others noted that six Chicago police officers were killed last year, crimes that have caused prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

But emotion is hardly the best wrapping for justice. Consideration of taking a life ought be deliberate and as free from error as humanly possible. Since it is not humanly possible to be error free, then it is necessary to simply abolish the practice.

Do we really want to be responsible for the death of an innocent person? Once applied, there is no do-overs, no make-goods. Once the execution is carried out, an apology is a very hollow response.

We applaud Rep. Karen Yarbrough, who sponsored the death penalty ban legislation in the state House, and Sen. Kwame Raoul, who sponsored the corresponding Senate measure, for convincing enough of their colleagues that taking a life requires more than fairness and more than carefulness.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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