I am ambivalent about the death penalty. I don’t like it, but there are cases where I don’t see any alternative. My husband is against it. My parents were for it. Given that some unknown person murdered my grandfather back in the early 1960s, the issue is frighteningly real for me. I waft back and forth between the two sides, horrified at the prospect of death as a remedy for murder and terrified of those who might live to kill again.
I read Scott Turow’s book Ultimate Punishment because it promised the inside story on why outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 men on death row. This was an unpopular move, causing a great deal of anguish to the relatives of murder victims. I couldn’t imagine that Ryan reached this decision lightly.
It began with the advent of DNA testing. After a series of death row exonerations, the Illinois criminal justice system came under scrutiny. According to Turow, our society accepts the death penalty based on certain beliefs. First, we presume that although no man-made process is flawless, our police and courts are efficient assessors of blame. We know the execution of an innocent person is possible, but we expect those risks to be low. Proportionality of punishment is another important element of American jurisprudence. We see a difference between shoplifting and murder, for example. It’s about balance, says Turow. Allowing the state to kill one of its citizens is tolerable only when there is no doubt of guilt -- and when the sentence fits the crime. If one of those underpinnings fails, the house of cards tumbles.
Troubled by doubts after so many questions about death row convictions, Governor Ryan appointed Turow to a blue ribbon task force charged with evaluating the problem and making recommendations. Scott Turow is a lawyer/author whose novels hit the bestseller list with regularity. Legal thrillers with scintillating courtroom scenes, Turow’s books explore questions like guilt and innocence. Ultimate Punishment is a small nonfiction tome describing the work performed by the committee, what they found and the recommendations they made.
Here are some of the committee’s findings. First, in Illinois, there is a racial difference between who does and doesn’t receive the death penalty. However, it’s not what one might think. Although more blacks and Hispanics commit murder, they are less likely to receive the ultimate sentence. There are two reasons for this. Juries in urban areas are more liberal and minority populations congregate in the northern cities. In addition, people are more likely to commit crimes in their own socio-economic groups. In other words, black criminals victimize fellow blacks. Here statistics show a strange twist on racism. The murderer of a white victim is more likely to be executed. White juries are more likely to embrace capital punishment -- and in Illinois, white populations are more likely to be suburban or rural. Therefore, more white murderers end up on death row.
In addition, the committee found problems with evidence collection, police interrogation tactics and eyewitness declarations. Whether you live or die might depend on where you commit your crime, who you kill, or whether you have a good lawyer. The composition of a jury can alter the outcome. There’s evidence that "qualifying" a jury for a capital case results in a panel that more likely to deliver a death verdict. Conspirators sometimes receive different sentences for committing the same crime. In one case, after the exoneration of a condemned man, the real murderer received a lesser sentence. Sometimes the severity of the offense isn’t what earns a man the ultimate penalty, but who he is. Richer people were more likely to avoid death than poorer ones. Charming people receive mercy more often that those who are unlikable.
These problems arise for many reasons -- all charged with the emotion of grieving relatives, angry citizens and the understandable zeal of police and prosecutors who deal with society’s "bad guys". Political pressures on legislators lead to laws that are overly broad and open to misapplication. Public fears that dangerous murderers will be paroled to again prey on society encourages the addition of more "special circumstances" that mandate death as a punishment. Murders committed during the commission of another felony or as part of a terrorist attack are two examples.
How things SHOULD work is complicated too. The data does not support the idea that capital punishment is a deterrent. All it can do is ensure that this particular criminal won’t kill again. If proportionality of punishment is the issue, there needs to be some way of regulating the way sentences are imposed. However, that flies in the face of the long-cherished American ideal that each case should be adjudicated based on its own merits. Many fine minds have pondered the issues and given up finding solutions that are fair to all concerned. Given the potential that some of the 167 men on death row might be innocent, Governor Ryan punted. I’m not sure what I would have done under those circumstances.
I wanted to find data neatly presented in charts and tables. I expected the committee to see what others couldn’t -- a way to render justice that is truly blind. I was disappointed. Although I recommend this well-written, sagacious piece to anyone interested in the topic, there are no clear-cut answers here -- only more questions. Ultimate Punishment is a sobering read.