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The only way to ‘fix’ death penalty system is to end it


On Sept. 21, 1998, I stood face to face with a man who was scheduled for execution by the State of Illinois just 60 hours later. Anthony Porter’s hands shook visibly as he passed legal papers to me through the bars of his closet-like cell on Menard Prison’s death row.

Within 45 minutes, I was convinced he was innocent. All evidence clearly pointed to another man as the killer. Even family members of the victims stated they didn’t believe Porter committed the murders of which he was convicted.

Fortunately, that same day, Porter was temporarily spared death by a stay of execution, not based on innocence but based on a lack of competence. A psychiatrist judged that Porter had an IQ of 51. As I drove home from the prison, I fumed over a system that could allow a man so clearly innocent to languish on death row for 12 years. As part of my work there, I began to speak out and write on Porter’s behalf.

In my efforts at advocacy I felt as if I were screaming with all my might but only whispers were being emitted. It was only when graduate students from Northwestern University School of Journalism (not law) uncovered conclusive evidence, that Porter was finally exonerated. On Feb. 5, 1999, he was released to tearful embraces of his attorney, family and friends. This emotional scene was one of 13 such scenes that had been replayed in Illinois in recent years.

Anthony Porter was, as Gov. George Ryan of Illinois put it on Jan. 11, “a perfect [example] of what is so terribly broken about our system.” On Friday, Ryan ordered the release of four more death row inmates, based on overwhelming evidence of innocence.

Perhaps Ryan felt something of what I felt as he examined numerous Illinois capital cases -- cases marked by racism, manufactured evidence, and confessions extracted under torture. But when Ryan screamed, the whole world listened.

“Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious -- and therefore immoral -- I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” Ryan said Jan. 11.

There are those who will argue that while the death penalty makes mistakes on occasion, it is effective overall and should be left intact. To those I say: Try spending 12 years, 12 months, even 12 weeks under the sentence of death for a crime you didn’t commit, and then tell us how great the system is. Put yourself in the shoes of Leroy Orange, who spent 17 years on Illinois’ death row. Imagine how it would feel to miss your mother’s funeral and the birth of your grandson.

If the death penalty system were a parachute and it had already failed numerous times, you can be sure that society would go to great pains to fix it. Why not then, for a system that involves highly disproportionate numbers of African-American, Latino and Native American men and women?

Many assert that those who can be shown conclusively to have committed heinous crimes should be given the ultimate penalty. But doesn’t the criminal justice system already promise that? Weren’t the 17 exonerated men in Illinois already convicted beyond a reasonable doubt?

This is what I think Ryan was trying to get at when he said the system is broken and can’t be fixed.

Governments have long histories of trying to make their death penalty systems apply more equally to all races and income brackets. They have not been and never will be successful, because the death penalty system is but a reflection of the inequalities of our society. In such a system, the disenfranchised will always suffer a grave disadvantage. Wealthy, educated people with clout are as rare on death row as palm trees in Kansas, while the poor are overrepresented.

Moreover, any system that gives flawed, biased human beings the legal power to take the lives of other human beings is intrinsically corrupt and immoral. The only way to fix it is to end it.

The fact that Ryan represents the Republican Party -- a party traditionally known to be more favorable to the death penalty -- makes this event even more significant. His decision is but another dent in the infrastructure of an infamous legacy whose days are numbered.

Charles Carney served as a staff member for the Eighth Day Center for Justice, a Chicago-based Catholic coalition of religious congregations working for human rights, from 1994 to 1999. While there he served on the board of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and was a frequent visitor to death row. He now lives in Wichita, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003