Darrow’s dream: ending the death penalty

Posted: March 26, 2011 by scaryhouse in Uncategorized

Ann Lousin

Illinois has abolished the death penalty, effective July 1. Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed the legislation on March 9, also commuted the sentences of the men on death row to life imprisonment without parole. This is the end of a long, sad story featuring spineless political leaders, law enforcement officials who were unconcerned with justice, a public that did not want to know the truth and, almost certainly, innocent men executed during the past two centuries.

The states still supporting the death penalty might profit from knowing its history in Illinois. On at least one occasion, we used capital punishment to hang political prisoners. Those were the anarchists blamed for the Haymarket Riots in May 1886. Captains of industry vied for tickets to their execution.

The most notorious murder trial in Illinois history was surely the 1924 trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb for the cold-blooded murder of a child, Bobby Franks. Clarence Darrow, then Chicago’s most famous lawyer, defended them. More accurately, he pleaded with the judge not to impose the death penalty upon his obviously guilty clients. Darrow used his summation to deliver a sermon against capital punishment. His clients received life sentences.

In the 1950s, another Chicago lawyer, Elmer Gertz, added a codicil to that story. He succeeded in getting Leopold released from prison on the ground that, after 30 years as a model prisoner, Leopold was rehabilitated. Gertz continued the fight against capital punishment when he was elected a delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention. He sought to include a ban on the death penalty in the new constitution. Instead, the delegates put the issue to the voters as a separate question at the referendum on the new constitution held on Dec. 15, 1970. Illinois voters decided to leave the death penalty out of the constitution and let the legislative process decide the question.

During the next four decades, the debate continued. There were horrific murders. Few lost any sleep in May 1994, when John Wayne Gacy was executed for the murder of more than 30 young men and boys. Proponents of the death penalty pointed out that Gacy would kill no more.

Public opinion swung the other way when DNA tests showed that some people convicted of crimes, including capital crimes, were truly innocent. “Positive identifications” by witnesses and “irrefutable” circumstantial evidence were revealed to be erroneous, even coerced or the product of lies.

When I was a member of the Advisory Board of the Illinois Department of Corrections from 1994 to 2003, I learned about another side of capital punishment. Prison officials told me they disliked participating in an execution because they had come to know, if not exactly like, the condemned person. They especially hated executing women. They also said that when DNA tests showed that some prisoners — at least one of whom was just hours away from execution — were innocent, their faith in the death penalty was shaken. Some officials told me privately that they were “secret death-penalty abolitionists.”

via Darrow’s dream: ending the death penalty.

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