2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

stop the execution death penalty protesters

© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.


Troy Davis And Our Unfixable Death Penalty

It has been over four years since Amnesty International released its first report on the case of Troy Davis.  In that span of time, three states – New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois – have abolished the death penalty, and 17 men have been exonerated from our nation’s death rows after their wrongful convictions were overturned.

Yet Troy Davis, whose innocence claim did finally get heard last summer, remains at serious risk of execution.  He was unable to prove his innocence to the standard required by the court, but the state of Georgia has been unable to remove doubts about his guilt.

It is a fact (and not a surprising one) that our criminal justice system is not perfect, and cannot resolve all questions before it, and it is interesting to note that all three governors who have signed abolition bills since 2007 cited this imperfection as a major reason for eliminating capital punishment altogether.


Illinois Has Abolished the Death Penalty!

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Today, with the signature of Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty, and the third state to do it in four years.  The Governor also commuted the sentences of the 15 men currently residing on Illinois’ death row.  In addition to Governor Quinn, State Senator Kwame Raoul and State Representative Karen Yarbrough were key players in making death penalty abolition a reality in Illinois.  Please take a moment to thank them for their leadership.

No state has made a greater effort to “fix” their broken death penalty than Illinois.  A ten year moratorium on executions was established in January 2000, and since then various commissions and studies have attempted to grapple with the challenge of imposing an irreversible punishment in an error-prone system.  After over a decade of trying, Illinois politicians came to the conclusion that it simply cannot be done – that capital punishment in Illinois is beyond repair.  The system will always be prone to error, and the punishment of death will always be irreversible.

So they did the right thing, and indeed the only logical thing.  They abolished the death penalty.  Folks in other states where the flaws and shortcomings of capital punishment have become painfully clear should look to this example.  What was true in Illinois is equally true in Connecticut, Maryland, Montana, or for that matter any other state that still keeps the death penalty on its books.   The danger of executing the innocent can never be eliminated, the drain on the treasury will always divert resources from proven crime prevention measures, and the toll on the families of victims as they are dragged through a grueling process will always be both severe and completely unnecessary.

The Illinois experience has shown that, for both practical and moral reasons, the death penalty does not work.  It is an irreversible punishment in an imperfect world, and a cruel and degrading punishment in a world where we should be striving to respect and promote human dignity.   By rejecting the death penalty, Illinois has liberated itself from this failed experiment, and has scored a major victory for human rights.

Illinois Death Penalty Abolition Bill Goes to Governor!

UPDATE:  Please call Govenor Quinn’s office and ask that he sign the death penalty abolition bill: 312.814.2121

This afternoon the Illinois Senate joined the Illinois House or Representatives in voting to abolish the death penalty.  The vote was 32 in favor, 25  against, with 2 abstentions.  If Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law, Illinois will become the 16th state in the USA to ban capital punishment, and the 3rd in the last 4 years.

And more states may be on the way, with hot debates on death penalty abolition expected in states as diverse as Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana

These debates and votes reflect the growing public disillusionment with (and in more and more cases rejection of) capital punishment, with its errors and biases, its ineffectiveness, and its dubious morality.

Whether Governor Quinn in Illinois will sign or veto this bill remains to be seen.  Stay tuned!

Illinois Death Penalty Abolition Bill Passes House!

Today, the Illinois House of Representatives voted to abolish the death penalty.  The bill (SB 3539) now goes to the Illinois Senate, which will debate and vote on it very soon.  (Those of you in Illinois can call the capitol switchboard at (217) 782-2000, ask for your Senator and say, “I’m a constituent and I urge you to support SB 3539.”  You can find out who your state Senator is here.) 

Governor Pat Quinn has been somewhat non-committal about whether he would sign it into law, but he has been a vocal supporter of the moratorium on executions which has been in place for over ten years.

Illinois is the fifth largest state in the country, in terms of population, and was once a regular user of capital punishment.  The moratorium was imposed back in the year 2000 when it became obvious that the state’s death penalty was massively flawed – more death row prisoners were being found innocent than were being executed.  No solution to these problems has been found during the intervening decade, while capital punishment has continued to drain the state’s treasury.

Abolishing policies that do more harm than good and cost a lot of money is just common sense.  Today’s vote reflects that fact that elected officials in Illinois, as elsewhere, are taking a more rational approach to the death penalty, and realizing that getting rid of it is the most sensible option.

Death Penalty Abolition Passes Illinois House Committee

After ten years of futility, trying gamely to make its irreparably broken capital punishment system work, Illinois is on the verge of saying “enough is enough.”  Today, a committee in the Illinois House passed a bill to abolish the state’s moribund death penalty, and the full House and Senate will vote on the measure before the end of this week.   Way back in January of 2000, a moratorium on executions was imposed when it was noticed that more people were getting off of death row because of their innocence than because of their execution.  This didn’t stop the state from continuing to try to have a death penalty, and continuing to spend millions of dollars on it.

Now, with efforts to fix their flawed capital punishment system proven to be a failure, state lawmakers in the House can decide to stop throwing good money after bad and vote to abolish the death penalty once and for all.  The Senate should do the same.  If you live in Illinois, or know someone who does, now is the time for all state legislators to hear from their constituents – by phone, by fax, by email … All Illinois constituents can use their address to find their state legislators’ contact information here.

Spread the word and make the call TODAY!

Most Voters Prefer Alternatives to the Death Penalty

new poll demonstrates that U.S. voters don’t consider the capital punishment a wise use of their tax dollars.  It also finds that most U.S. voters don’t consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder

1,500 registered voters were surveyed for this comprehensive study of public attitudes towards the death penalty, released today by the Death Penalty Information Center.  In the poll, 61% of the voters preferred alternatives to the death penalty as the more appropriate punishments for murder.  (39% favored life without parole plus restitution for the victim’s family, 13% just life without parole, and 9% life with the possibility of parole.)

When asked about their personal budget priorities, the list was long, and the death penalty was at the bottom of it.  More pressing priorities included: emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation.

Polls which only ask whether the public is for or against the death penalty usually find a majority in support of capital punishment; but it is clear that when real world alternatives are included – alternative punishments and alternative uses of government resources – that support collapses.

The poll also reveals that most voters (62%) either don’t care how their representatives vote on the death penalty, or would likely support a legislator who voted to end capital punishment in their state. So legislators now considering death penalty abolition in Illinois, and those elected officials in several other states who will be in the same boat in 2011, can take heart and safely vote to end executions.

Death Penalty Abolition in Illinois Begins THIS WEEK

After 10 years of study and the exonerations of 20 innocent men sentenced to death, Illinois is pushing to join the ranks of New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico by getting rid of this internationally-condemned system once and for all.  Illinois State Representative Karen Yarbrough will introduce a new abolition bill in the veto session THIS WEEK which will repeal the death penalty in Illinois once and for all. On November 16th, Illinoisian Amnesty International members and other abolition supporters will gather at the State Capitol Building in Springfield to demand that state-legislators vote YES for repeal

As Amnesty members in Illinois scramble to meet with legislators, turn votes, fill buses, and take the final steps for repeal, there is something YOU can do from your respective states to secure abolition in Illinois …

Participate in our Virtual Lobby Day on Wednesday November 17th: Call newly-re-elected Democratic Governor Pat Quinn.  If you’re from an abolitionist state, tell the Governor how your state is getting by just fine without the death penalty.  If you hail from a death penalty state, touch on how Illinois has a chance to be a leader in the abolition movement for high-use states, making it possible for other states like your own to move towards repeal.  

Governor Pat Quinn
Office of the Governor
207 State House
Springfield, IL 62706
217-782-0244  (phone)

Illinois is closer than it’s ever been to repeal, but leadership needs pressure from other states to make this monumental step in human rights a reality. 

Whether you’re in a state like Michigan or Wisconsin that has functioned without capital punishment for over a century, or a state like Ohio or Florida with a long road ahead, you have an opportunity to show your solidarity as Illinois approaches this critical moment in its human rights history.  As Amnesty International members, we have heard, and ourselves quoted, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words time and time again: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We must recognize our interdependency and work together, across state lines, to secure abolition of the death penalty, state by state, with the ultimate goal of abolition of state-sponsored killing everywhere in the USA.

Getting used to a new Gitmo zip code

(Originally posted on Jurist)

The Obama administration’s announcement that it intends to move “War on Terror” detainees not cleared for release to the Thomson Correctional Facility changes very little beyond enabling President Obama to honor the letter, if not the spirit, of his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

What this decision in fact demonstrates is a lasting commitment to two ideas that President Obama rejected as a candidate: Military Commissions and indefinite detention without charge.

Military Commissions amount to little more than a cynical attempt to create a trial format with a sufficiently low burden of proof that it will admit evidence that could not be used in a real court. The concept of indefinite detention violates one of the most fundamental tenets of American – and international – justice that every defendant has a right to challenge his accusers in court. Both set disastrous precedents.

The decision to move the detainees will also have little positive impact on the position of the detainees themselves – indeed it will most likely further retard cases already unconscionably delayed. Nor will their day-to-day lives be improved, it is likely to be quite a while before the recreational facilities at Thomson match those now on offer at Guantanamo.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration is not fooling anyone either at home or abroad. Changing Guanatanmo’s zip code does not make indefinite detention any less palatable or military commissions any more legitimate.

Sadly, the good citizens of Thomson, Illinois, should get used to the idea that the name of their hometown will soon join Guantanamo and Abu Garaib as a shorthand term for American double standards and that it will likely become as effective a recruitment tool for Al-Qaeda as its predecessors.

Sentenced to Death Due to Police Torture

On July 7, Ronald Kitchen became a free man.  Convicted of the murder of five people in 1988, he spent over a dozen years on Illinois’ death row facing execution, until former Governor George Ryan commuted his sentence, along with all other Illinois death sentences, to life without parole in 2003.  But his conviction was based on a confession he gave to Chicago police after they tortured him.  According to Kitchen, he was “hit in the head with a telephone, punched in the face, struck in the groin and kicked.”  Tuesday, all charges against him were dropped, and he was released.

“If you’re getting whooped for over 39 hours and you’re constantly saying that you didn’t do it and they’re constantly doing what they’re doing, somewhere along the line you’re going to realize they’re not going to stop unless somebody gives in,” Kitchen said in a Chicago Sun Times article.  

Kitchen’s wrongful conviction was one of many obtained by officers serving under Police Commander Jon Burge.  During the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, prisoners, mostly African American, were routinely tortured and abused into giving false confessions.  Amnesty International reported on these and other abuses ten years ago.  Because the arc of the universe bends towards justice, Burge now faces his own day in court, though for perjury and obstruction of justice charges, not torture.

Kitchen’s exoneration came in part thanks to the efforts of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University; but, despite the clear evidence of torture, it still took dozens of people years of work to win his freedom.  As the video above makes clear, many others who may be equally innocent aren’t lucky enough to get that kind of support.