Commentary: Agonizing over the death penalty
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2010 - Illinois' 10-year moratorium on executions has kept us from killing the wrongly convicted while we added significant protections against error. But it has not abated the agony of jurors like Sue Grbic or the angst of victims like the 52-year-old woman raped and battered by a man who murdered 11 others -- even while sparing politicians eager to appease both friends and foes of the death penalty.
"Although he supports capital punishment when applied carefully and fairly, he is deeply concerned by the possibility of an innocent man or women being executed," a spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn said during the campaign. "He believes the current moratorium gives the state an opportunity to reflect on the issue and create safeguards to make sure the death penalty is not being imposed improperly in Illinois."
The statement is all too typical -- and evasive. We can reduce but never eliminate the possibility of lethal injustice. Legislators and the governor should abolish capital punishment. Absent that, they should enact whatever reforms they deem necessary to resume it. The legal limbo becomes harder to justify each day.
Consider Grbic's ordeal. She and her fellow DuPage County jurors last year spiked a verdict that would have provided a life sentence for Brian Dugan, convicted killer of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. Moments before that life sentence verdict would have been read, a torn and trembling Grbic sought resumption of deliberations. She had balked at imposing the ultimate punishment. Without the unanimity required for the death penalty, the others agreed on a life sentence and signed the verdict form.
"I felt sick. I knew I wasn't ready to make a decision yet," she said later. After deliberations resumed, however, she and another holdout became convinced Dugan should die. "I took my responsibility seriously, and I stand by the final decision," she said when defense attorneys challenged the reversal.
While Grbic agonized, another woman anticipated. Unlike the others who had been sexually assaulted and beaten, this 12th target had lived to see the assailant caught and convicted. When Cook County jurors split, she was outraged. "I got the death penalty. He left me helpless." But would it have made a difference? Would the verdict she sought have been upheld by the courts? Would an extended moratorium or renewed moratorium delay implementation? Would a future governor who, like George Ryan, consistently had supported the death penalty block its implementation because of profound doubts?
The stakes are enormous. So is the pressure.
Judges and juries evaluate evidence and search their souls. Elected prosecutors ponder whether to seek execution or a life sentence, knowing their decision in an often electric atmosphere could abbreviate or advance their careers. In one case, the victim's relatives may cry out for vengeance; in another, they may reject the death penalty. Should it make a difference? Does it? Meanwhile, defense attorneys anguish over whether they adequately represented a condemned man.
In its final report, the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee called for establishing a panel to review prosecutorial decisions. It also proposed changes to help assure more accurate identification of perpetrators through lineups.
If the General Assembly refuses to eliminate the death penalty, it should act quickly to approve those recommendations, which come from top professionals reflecting a diversity of perspectives. Quinn should then lift the moratorium.
Some might question the urgency. Given the lengthy appeal process, no Death Row occupant faces imminent execution. But if we are asking judges and jurors to agonize, demanding that prosecutors make hard decisions and allowing some victims and some families to hope for executions, we should at least make it all real.
Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. He writes a twice-monthly column.