Lock Up the Death Penalty

Illinois halts executions to ponder its mistakes

Many arguments are made against the death penalty. But one that always comes up is its irrevocability if an executed man or woman is later proved to be innocent.

Death-penalty proponents say that's no reason to junk the ultimate sanction. We don't stop driving cars because accidents kill, they argue. We only try to drive safer.

The difference, of course, is this: Maintaining capital punishment in the face of even one capital mistake violates the most basic principle of justice - fairness.

A justice system must not only deliver verdicts fairly, it must make amends to the unjustly convicted. It can't do that for the executed.

On a practical level, people lose faith in a system when even one innocent is put to death, eroding the state's ability to fight crime.

In the 23 years since capital punishment was reintroduced in Illinois, 12 death-row inmates have been put to death. Thirteen have been taken off death row because of the discovery of exonerating evidence, such as DNA analysis. A number of cases were dropped after a new trial was ordered.

In one highly publicized case last year, an inmate came within two days of execution before journalism students at Northwestern University found evidence proving his innocence.

Faced with this record, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, has taken a just, compassionate, and politically courageous step: He has decided to halt all executions until a commission can study the way the state handles capital cases and suggest reforms that would minimize the chances of an innocent person being executed.

The room for reform is ample. The Chicago Tribune recently looked at 300 death-penalty cases in the state and found numerous failings. Death-row inmates were often represented by lawyers in poor professional standing, some even disbarred. Convictions often rested on relatively flimsy evidence, such as the testimony of jailhouse informants and hair analysis.

The governor says, as a start, more money could be devoted to legal representation for those facing the death penalty. He still thinks capital punishment is a proper option but "we need to have some answers before we put any innocent people to death."

But can we reliably exclude human error, including prosecutorial excess, from the justice system? And if such errors are surfacing too often in Illinois, how free of them are the other 37 states with the death penalty?

Since the early 1970s, 83 death- row inmates have been released after evidence of their innocence surfaced. Hundreds have been executed over the same period.

Can the justice system ever be 100 percent right? Not likely. Then how can it administer punishment that's 100 percent irreversible?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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