Thoughts on the End of the Death Penalty in Illinois


I was in third grade when the news broke about John Wayne Gacy.  Every evening, my family would eat dinner in the kitchen as the black and white TV on the countertop announced yet another body had been found in his crawlspace or his yard or in the swimming pool filled in with cement under his garage.

One weekend in 1979, my dad drove us past his house.  It was being systematically disassembled by police and we couldn’t get very close.  What really struck me was the rest of the neighborhood.  It was so – normal.  The trees were taller and the styles of the houses were slightly different, otherwise it could have been my neighborhood.

That thought stuck with me for a long time.

I was 24 when he was executed, in the same age range as his victims.  I stayed up late to hear the news and was relieved when they reported after all these years, he was finally dead.  I wondered what had taken so long? My primary concern with the Death Penalty was if someone as obviously guilty as John Wayne Gacy had taken fourteen years to get through the system, how long would it take someone who had committed horrific yet less newsworthy crimes?  I wondered if an inmate on death row was more likely to die of old age rather than lethal injection.

I assumed the long delay was the result of safety precautions built into the system to prevent an innocent person from being killed in my name.  I thought that right up until a group of journalism students at Northwestern University proved someone on death row shouldn’t be there.  And then they did it again.

And again.

And again.

Actually the students worked very hard, sometimes for years, to disprove the cases against these men, but – at the time – all I could think was “how flimsy are these convictions that students are able to blow them wide open?”  It sure didn’t say much for the state of journalism in Illinois, or the state of justice for that matter.

I looked up the costs of death penalty cases and couldn’t believe how expensive they were.  Richard Speck – the man who killed eight nurses in Chicago in 1966 – had originally been sentenced to death.  His sentence later changed to a mere 1,200 years in prison.  Believe it or not, it would have actually been cheaper to keep Speck imprisoned until the year 3167 than kill him outright (and the fact he died in prison long before his term was up saved the state even more money – thanks, Dick).

That led me to ask the obvious question: “How does one get the death penalty in Illinois?”  I really didn’t know.  It wasn’t automatic for murder; there seemed to be all these “extenuating circumstances”.  I’m a relatively intelligent person.  I like to think I’m smarter than most criminals.  If I didn’t see any hard and fast way to get executed in Illinois, how could it be a deterrent?

In 2000, Governor George Ryan decided to put a moratorium on the death penalty.  The state legislature began looking at ways to “fix” the system and make it work better.  After ten years, they decided there was no way to really make it work any better than it did.  Last Wednesday, Governor Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois, making us the sixteenth state in the nation to get rid of it.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist.  We have a set of seven principles that help us with questions of morality.  The death penalty bumps up against four of them at least.  Despite that, I do have a nagging suspicion there are certain acts that so violate societal norms that – yes, they should merit death.  But I can’t say – specifically – what they are.

Take Osama bin Laden… please.

Should he get the death penalty if caught?  No, he wants to die if caught; he wants to be a martyr to his cause.  I can think of no better punishment than not to kill him and instead have him tried, found guilty, sentenced to life in prison without parole and then have him tied up in civil court day after day, month after month, year after year as every individual who was affected by 9/11 has the ability to sue him for damages and mental suffering.  And if Osama f^&*ing bin Laden doesn’t merit the death penalty then maybe this is the right thing to do.  Maybe we can live without it as a society.  Let’s give it a try.

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