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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 04:10 pm

Death penalty’s dying days

I sat back and watched the debate that unfolded in the Illinois House Judiciary Committee. Prosecutors from across the state each spoke and put their best arguments forward as to why lawmakers should vote to defeat the bill that would ultimately abolish the death penalty in Illinois.

They had all but abandoned the original argument proponents of capital punishment made when lawmakers voted to reinstate the death penalty almost 40 years earlier. Back then, the primary argument for reinstating the death penalty was that it deterred crime.

But after four decades of data, crime statistics have proven that the death penalty has had no deterrent effect at all. Sociopaths and those motivated to murder based on passion, revenge, hatred, greed or mental instability are not deterred by the thought of getting caught.

I listened to what prosecutors now had to say. If they abolish the death penalty, lawmakers would be robbing prosecutors of a “valuable tool” that they use to leverage those accused of murder to plead guilty. Their main argument was one of self-interest.

The practice of leveraging “pleas” by the threat of death can be traced back to the Salem Witch Trials in colonial America. Those accused of being a witch were brought to the gallows and were given one last chance to spare themselves from the hangman’s noose. All one had to do is plead “guilty.” There were 19 people and one dog that were promptly hanged, who professed their innocence.

It is a hideous use of a “tool.”

Their arguments that morning were no match for the powerful presence of former death row inmate Randy Steidl, who spoke about his experience. He spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. There were times, he said, when he would have stuck the needle in his own arm to end the misery of being in prison. A life sentence is far worse than death, he said. But more poignant was the point he made about the errors in capital convictions. You can release an innocent person from prison, he said, but you can’t release them from the grave.

In the end, it was this argument that prevailed that day. The bill to abolish the death penalty passed through the Illinois legislature and was signed by Gov. Patrick Quinn in March of 2011.

The only reason left for keeping the death penalty is vengeance. Not something a civilized society wants to admit.

More than half of the nations in the world have abolished the use of the death penalty, including almost all of Europe. Our country, once a beacon of enlightened liberty, now stands in the company of some of the most repressive regimes that still practice capital punishment. The U.S. ranks fourth in the world in the number of executions, joining Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and China that round out the top five, according to Amnesty International.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court briefly declared the death penalty “cruel and unusual punishment” and declared it unconstitutional. This was because of the manner in which prosecutors unfairly applied the death penalty to African-Americans when compared to white defendants who faced similar charges in the state of Georgia.

Reflecting on the future, Randy Steidl predicts it will be the states of the Deep South that will be the last states to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. Northern states like Wisconsin and Michigan were the first to abolish the death penalty in the 1800s, prior to the Civil War.

Public opinion has drastically shifted away from support of the death penalty. Voters in California came within a few percentage points of ratifying a proposition to abolish the death penalty in the recent election. More than 47 percent of voters in The Golden State supported abolishing the death penalty. This is a drastic shift since 1978, when 71 percent of the voters voted for the proposition which reinstated the death penalty in California. The leading voice for abolition of the death penalty was the lawmaker who was the original sponsor of the proposition that reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Lawmakers in California may feel emboldened to follow the lead of lawmakers in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois, who within the last five years have voted to abolish the death penalty.   

Not to be discouraged, Randy Steidl continues his march, speaking to legislators as a spokesperson for the organization Witness to Innocence. Within our lifetime, we may finally witness the end of the death penalty in America.

Bill Clutter is a licensed private investigator in Springfield. A federal judge, citing Clutter’s post-conviction investigation, released Randy Steidl from prison in May 2004. Clutter is now working on death penalty cases in Kentucky.
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