In the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, an Illinois House member has called for the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign a bill that would reinstate the death penalty.
The death penalty was repealed in 2011. But well before then, Illinois governors, starting with George Ryan, barred capital punishment from being imposed on state prison inmates who were sentenced to death.
It’s easy to understand the visceral reaction by state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, to the mass shootings. In a just world, there would be a law that metes out proportionate punishment to those who perpetrate these horrendous acts of mindless violence.
Alas, even the death penalty is not sufficient punishment, because there is no adequate punishment for killing on the scale seen in Texas and Ohio.
Those who think death is appropriate in these kinds of incidents can take some comfort in the reality that most mass shooters are suicidal and do not survive their participation in these outrages.
So what McSweeney is really talking about is restoring capital punishment as an option for the worst of the worst kinds of murder cases.
The idea, in theory, has its appeal. After all, does anyone miss mass murderer John Wayne Gacy? He was sentenced to death and actually executed for his 30-plus murders of young men and boys.
But the fact is that Illinois’ death penalty law, mostly, was a failure.
For starters, dozens of people were sentenced to death but never executed. Illinois’ death penalty was, mostly, on paper because residents of death row filed appeal after appeal, decade after decade.
The real problem, however, was that too many defendants were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. These wrongful convictions were the result of a variety of factors, including shoddy, even dishonest, police work and low-quality legal representation for the accused.
Whatever the reasons, it’s intolerable when a system of justice becomes a vehicle for the ultimate injustice.
Proponents like McSweeney insist that safeguards could be built into the death penalty trial system that would eliminate the possibility of error, something like the guidelines in place in federal death penalty litigation.
That sounds good and, even though unlikely, may even be possible.
But the death penalty proved to be more trouble than it was worth.
What’s more, the alternative to a death sentence is life in prison. For those who want to see the worst of the worst severely punished, a natural life sentence fills the bill.
Merits of the issue aside, the politics of the issue make this proposal a near impossibility.
Liberal Democrats run the state, and liberal Democrats want to see more people released from state prisons, not people sentenced to death there.
Ideologically, this proposal is a nonstarter for Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the super-majority Democrats who run the House and Senate and even Republicans who would rather spend their time pursuing more important and practical issues.
McSweeney has a point about crime and punishment, one that may earn him some fans. But Illinois’ death penalty has come and gone, and that’s not going to change in the current political and social climate.
The (Champaign) News-Gazette