On March 9, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the bill repealing Illinois’ death penalty and commuted the sentences to life without parole of 15 inmates on death row. As a Christian opposed to the death penalty, I was pleased to hear that the Old Testament prophets and the teachings of the New Testament, as well as Christians Desmond Tutu and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, had influenced Quinn’s decision. God’s sense of justice has finally overruled man’s.
Hopefully, this action will encourage other states to do the same. Illinois was the first state in the country to implement a moratorium and no state has tried harder to make the death penalty fair. Even so, innocent men were exonerated and disparities were revealed. When Gov. Quinn said, “It is impossible to create a perfect system, free of all mistakes,” he might well have added, “If we can’t fix this system in Illinois, we can’t fix it anywhere.” Quinn could not tolerate a system that could execute innocent people and Christians everywhere should not tolerate it either.
Prosecutors and police lament the loss of this valuable bargaining chip, the death penalty. But I have little sympathy for them because in my 12 years of abolition work, I have met several innocent men who were tortured, coerced into confessing or pled guilty when threatened with the death penalty by police or prosecutors who would get a conviction by any means possible. One month ago I heard a former prosecutor tell a group of lawyers that it was prosecutors who had the weakest cases, who weren’t sure they could get a conviction, who were most tempted to tell a suspect, “Just confess, and we’ll take the death penalty off the table.”
My heart does go out to the family members whose loved ones were murdered by the 15 men on death row. However, it’s not because they will miss seeing the murderers executed. They remind me of the family members who spoke in 2002 at the Prisoner Review Board’s clemency hearings that preceded then-Governor Ryan’s commutation of the sentences of 167 prisoners on death row. One woman screamed, “I’ve been waiting 23 years for this, and now one governor, with the stroke of a pen, is going to take it away from me!”
I felt heartsick to see that woman and others like her, many of whom had been locked in rage and vengeance for decades, hanging on to the hope of executions for dear life as their only way for finding peace and closure. If the murderers had all been sentenced to life without parole, family members could likely have accepted the lifetime incarcerations and been freed to get on with their lives. If victims’ family members cannot come to the point of forgiveness, which Christ always wants us to move toward, then perhaps abolishing the death penalty will reduce some of the anger they feel.
Gail Rice is an author, consultant and adult literacy specialist who has been involved in jail and prison literacy work and ministry for over 30 years. For more on her involvement with capital punishment - and a lively, ensuing discussion about the issue - read her previous TC post: "Why I take the death penalty personally."