Wrongful convictions are a persistent problem in justice system
I once spent Valentine’s Day on Illinois’ death row.
This week I couldn’t help thinking about the strangest Valentine’s experience I’ve ever had. I spent February 14, 2000, in the death row visitor’s room at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
I was there to interview a mentally-ill death row inmate who had become lost in the system. His schizophrenia had incapacitated him to such a degree that he couldn’t assist with his appeals.
When making arrangements for the interview, I hadn’t thought about it being Valentine’s Day. The realization hit me when I walked through the prison gates and surveyed the visitor’s room.
Women from across Illinois were there dressed in their nicest clothes, visiting their husbands and boyfriends on that day set aside for romance.
And make no mistake, folks, there was love in that room.
Our society doesn’t like to talk about this. It’s far easier to vilify those a judge and jury have ruled so worthless that they shouldn’t be allowed to live.
But the more striking thing about the room was how ordinary the men were, their faces could blend in at most Illinois diner -- or my high school yearbook.
I shared this observation with actor Mike Farrell, who played Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the old MASH series. Farrell, an opponent of the death penalty, has spent a lot of time visiting those sentenced to death.
“You know, Scott, these guys don’t have horns growing out of their heads,” he told me during a phone interview.
My view on the death penalty has evolved. When I was younger, my trite philosophy on capital punishment was: “Some people just don’t deserve to live.”
But then I met a man named Gary Gauger. He was wrongly convicted of murdering his parents in rural McHenry County. He served two years on Illinois’ death row before his conviction was thrown out.
I met Gauger back in 2000 when he dropped by my office, which was then in the Illinois statehouse. He told a tale of wrongful conviction and left me speechless. He wasn’t released on a technicality. He was freed because someone else did the crime.
In recent decades Illinois sentenced 13 men to die who were factually innocent. And those are just the mistakes we know about. Wrongful convictions are a persistent problem in our justice system.
In the past two decades, I’ve personally met more than 100 people convicted of murders they did not commit. Most had spent decades behind bars before a judge determined a mistake had been made. Courts and police departments are like any human institution: they’re prone to making mistakes.
My faith commands me to speak up. After all, Christianity is a religion that had it beginning with an unfair trial, a wrongful conviction and a horrendous execution.
My political philosophy is libertarian, which means I support limited government. And let’s face it, there is no greater intrusion of government than when it chooses to kill one of its own citizens.
For these reasons, I’m glad Illinois no longer has capital punishment.
The ending of this abhorrent institution can be credited to two governors: George Ryan and Pat Quinn.
Quinn signed the legislation outlawing the death penalty. It was a position different than the platform he ran for office on, but in hindsight I’m glad he changed his mind. Illinois is a better place without capitol punishment.
Gov. George Ryan also deserves credit. During his four years in office, he moved from being a supporter of the death penalty to being the nation’s most vocal opponent of capital punishment. He is the man who emptied Illinois’ death row when he commuted 167 death sentences.
When he did this, many family members of victims were angry. They said they wanted the “closure” that they believed would only come if the person who killed their loved one was also killed. I’m sorry, but how can one death erase the pain of another death?
Three years ago, I was reporting in Santa Fe, Texas, where a gunman entered a school and killed 10 people and wounded a dozen more. Repeatedly, I heard those who had lost a family member bemoan the fact that the killer was only 17, which meant he was not eligible for the death penalty in Texas.
Would killing him somehow bind up the community’s wounds and make the pain go away? It’s doubtful. But that’s part of the mythology that surrounds capital punishment.
I’m not naïve. I know there are bad people among us who should be banished forever from society. That’s a sad reality. And that is what prisons are for.
What does society gain by killing its own? Retribution? Justice?
Well, it’s time to temper justice with a bit of mercy.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. Scottreeder1965@gmail.com