Saturday 29 January 2011

The case against capital punishment

For more than 56 years, I have practiced law in Chicago. During the past 10, much of my time and energy has been devoted to studying our capital punishment system.
As co-chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment (2000-2002), I participated in heart-rending interviews of family members of murder victims and heard moving statements by men who were convicted, sentenced to death and imprisoned for murders they did not commit.
As chairman of the General Assembly’s Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee from 2003 to 2010, I participated in four public hearings, during which we heard the views of many of our citizens about the death penalty. We spoke at length with police and sheriff personnel, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. Members of both groups had great sympathy for those who lost a family member as a result of a murder. We sympathized with the men (and their family members) who had been wrongfully convicted of murders and who spent years behind bars.
As a result of these experiences, I have come to the firm conclusion that the death penalty system is extremely expensive, does not deter crime or serve any valid purpose and cannot be reformed to prevent more mistaken death sentences.
Here are my reasons:
Most Illinois citizens probably do not know that significant reforms recommended by the Governor’s Commission in 2002 and repeated by the Reform Committee have not been enacted. But even if all were made law, mistaken convictions and death sentences would continue. As the Governor’s Commission stated: “No system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.”
Our state serves as a horrible example in the use of the death penalty. During the past decade, 20 men have been released from Death Row, most exonerated by newly discovered evidence. More than $60 million has been paid in damage claims and well over $50 million has been spent from the Capital Litigation Trust Fund for the prosecution and defense of capital cases. Is this a wise use of funds? I think not.
The system is infected with racial and geographic discrimination. Serious disparities exist among our 102 counties in the selection of cases for capital punishment. The Governor’s Commission and the Reform Committee proposed reforms, but they have not been made law. Recommendations of both groups for a statewide committee to review cases in which a state’s attorney desires to seek death have been vigorously opposed by the State’s Attorneys Association. Nor has the Illinois Supreme Court been provided with information to ensure that the death penalty is imposed only upon the “worst of the worst” cases, as it is supposed to be, but clearly is not.
With our state finances in distress, costs must be considered. The processing of capital cases is far more expensive than those in which death is not sought. And in more than 60 percent of the cases in which state’s attorneys file notices that death will be sought — which automatically results in expenditure of substantial amounts of state and local funds — the notices are withdrawn, and sentences of imprisonment for terms of years imposed, usually with the state’s attorneys’ agreement. The result is a substantial but unnecessary financial burden on state and local governments.
So far as I am able to determine, there is no real evidence to support the theory that capital punishment deters crime. Consider this: Following a moratorium on executions in 2000 — and the commutation of more than 160 death sentences to life without parole in 2003 — the Illinois murder rate has declined. Does it follow that commuting death sentences and prohibiting executions deters murder?
An ever-growing number of states do not have the death penalty. No member of the European Union may have it. We can do just fine without capital punishment.
The death penalty diverts our attention and money from the real problems in our society that lead to crime, for example, poverty, unemployment, housing, education and health issues. The Reform Committee recommended that part of the money now spent on capital cases be made available to the families of crime victims. Rather than spending millions to support state killings, would it not be wiser to use the funds to assist crime victims?
The General Assembly was wise and courageous to pass legislation abolishing the death penalty. I respectfully urge Gov. Quinn to sign it.
Thomas P. Sullivan 

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