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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Illinois bans the death penalty, but for how long?

Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois signed a law yesterday that bans the death penalty in Illinois.  In his case, it represents a change in stance.  Some stubborn facts about the death penalty could not be dismissed.  In the past decade,  Illinois has exonerated 20 people on death row who, largely through DNA testing, were found innocent of the crimes for which they were being sent to death.

My own stance on the death penalty has been one of diffidence, although most leaders in the church denomination I belong to think it is immoral.  They insist that Christ specifically forbids killing and the custom of deadly retribution.

My own attitude toward the death penalty was overshadowed by the larger issue of wrongful convictions.  About 45 years ago, the newspaper I worked for did a series of interviews of inmates in Illinois prisons.  I did a lengthy one with a man who had been sentenced to life and became a Roman Catholic Brother who assisted the priests who were prison chaplains and served the ministry within the prison.  The man was a wise and shrewd observer of prison.  He told me things that have haunted me ever since the interview.  One question I asked him was, who were the  most dangerous men in prison.  He said the wrongfully convicted.

The convict brother explained that the wrongfully convicted have had demonstrated to them the absence of justice.  He said that even those who persisted in being forgiving and not vindictive had permanently had their thinking changed.  Those who did not devote themselves to benignity were bent on exacting from society the kind of injustice that had been inflicted on them.  That is why the brother considered them so dangerous.  They had the motives for revenge; prison taught them the means.

As a consequence of that experience, I have worked with projects that investigate and try to rectify wrongful convictions.  For the reasons laid out above, I hold an urgency about releasing and making reparations to those  who are wrongfully incarcerated.  In cases where convictions have been overturned, I have been enlisted to use my role as a professor in the rehabilitation of the people concerned.  In other cases I have assisted in my role as a journalist in examining some cases.

One of those cases was in South Dakota.  A man had been sentenced to life for an assault on a child.  The man had a long record of problems with substance abuse.  At the time of the crime, he was in such a state of intoxication that he could not provide information that would help with his defense.  Although not an admirable person, some members of his parents' church, who were involved in the justice system, saw huge flaws in the investigation of the crime and in the conduct of the trial.  There was compelling evidence that the man was too incapacited to commit the crime with which he was convicted.

A main point that stood out as dubious was the testimony of some witnesses.  The investigation of the case ended when the man committed suicide and the family requested that the matter be dropped.  However, the organization that sponsored the case review has declined to close the case and is keeping it under review for possible developments.

Gov. Quinn came to the conclusion that the justice system is too flawed and is set up to railroad too many innocents.  The case I cite above appears to be more evidence of that.  The system itself  is unreliable and vulnerable to the egotistical motives of law enforcement and judicial authorities.

The prison system does more to confirm the tendencies of criminals and to frustrate rehabilitation than it does to serve justice.  It turns the wrongfully convicted to vengeance.  It is ineffective in making criminals anything other than more dedicated, effective criminals.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate and the highest prison population in the world.   These rates reflect the political priorities that dominant the nation. The U.S. is defining itself  by abolishing labor unions, by the money and people it pours into prisons,  by its subservience to corporations, and by its persecution of the middle class.  As soon, as Gov. Quinn signed the ban on the death penalty, the GOP announced its efforts to revoke the ban.  My Pine Ridge sage says that the GOP doesn't think America is being America unless it is oppressing and killing people. 

President Obama has taken seriously the desire expressed by Americans to stop the partisan wrangling and work together.  He and other conciliatory liberals see this as giving concessions to a GOP that is unabashedly fascist in its pronouncements and policies.  One should not regard the Illinois ban on the death penalty as progress.  Unless the liberals are willing to get militant, that ban will not last long. 

That's just how it has become in America. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States