Bringing Back the Death Penalty is Bad Politics, Policy & Practice

Sneaking in controversial policy riders to pending legislation is a time-honored though unsavory political tactic. Governor Rauner’s attempt to bring back the death penalty by commandeering pending gun control legislation seems to be exactly that: an act of partisan gamesmanship, cynical opportunism and unprincipled politicking. Illinois, with its history of wrongful convictions and justice system error, has made clear that the price of the death penalty is not one we are willing to pay.

In 1975, after a Supreme Court decision ruled in favor of the death penalty’s constitutionality, Illinois reinstated capital punishment. Between 1975 and 1999, prior to the moratorium on executions put in place by Governor Ryan, twelve people were put to death, and thirteen others were released from prison due to questions surrounding their guilt. The moratorium remained in place until 2011, when Governor Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois.

The errors which led to the wrongful conviction and sentencing to death of thirteen innocent men prior to their exoneration — forced confessions, racial bias, unreliable witnesses, and incompetent legal representation — remain endemic in our legal system. Governor Rauner’s simplistic proposal to cure these entrenched, complex problems — by imposing a “beyond all doubt” standard in cases involving multiple murder victims or the death of a police officer before the death penalty can be imposed — is, at best, hopelessly naïve, and at worst, willfully ignorant.

Years of research show that changes to the wording of jury instructions are likely to have little, if any, impact on how jurors reach their decisions. Prosecutors also have noted the impossibility of satisfying the standard of proof beyond ALL doubt, and the likelihood of confusing jurors by a creating a new, higher standard of proof — in radical departure from American jurisprudence which historically has treated “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” as our most stringent, exacting standard. As a practical matter, it is hard to know how a heightened, new standard of proof would be understood and applied by juries in capital cases. What is certain, however, is that confusion surrounding the creation and application of a totally new standard of proof would clog up the court system for many years to come.

In declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000, Governor Ryan stated, “I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life… Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.” The nonchalance with which Governor Rauner now dismisses these grave concerns should give us all pause.

Many speculate that Governor Rauner’s proposal to reinstate the death penalty is merely a political stunt meant to paint himself as the “tough on crime” candidate in an election year and to appeal to voters who opposed criminal justice reform efforts of the past few years. This may or may not be the case. JHA cannot speak to what is in Governor Rauner’s heart and mind or to his motivations. As it stands, however, Governor Rauner has yet to articulate any reasoned, rational argument for reinstating the death penalty or believing that the moral, ethical and procedural flaws in our justice system which led us to abolish the death penalty in 2011 have been solved. Political posturing and grandstanding should never come at the expense of sound public policy and humane practices. It is an affront to Illinois citizens.

The John Howard Association (JHA) is Illinois’ only independent prison watch dog organization. Since 1901, JHA has been going into every prison in the State to monitor the conditions, treatment, programming and health, safety and welfare of all of those who live and work inside our institutions. The death penalty has no place in a civilized society. It does not protect those who might be victims; it does not deter those who might be murderers. Vengeance and retribution have been the guideposts of our correctional system for decades, leading to mass incarceration and huge expense – human and monetary - with few positive outcomes to show for it. While current reforms that promote rehabilitation can take time to yield results, real reform requires investment in people. We need investment in communities, education, employment opportunities, dismantling of endemic racism and poverty, and an understanding that there is no quick fix to repairing a broken system and rebuilding a more functional and humane one.

Gary Ricke2018