Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing capital punishment in the state and commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates still on death row to life in prison without parole.
I disagree with the decision, and have stated my reasons for not abolishing the death penalty here and here. Never mind: this is a topic on which ethical and reasonable people can disagree with honor. But if one is going to abolish an important law enforcement tool, the official justification for it ought to be coherent and persuasive, and not just facile rhetoric. That, unfortunately, is what Gov. Quinn gave us.
Here is the relevant segment of Quinn’s statement after signing the bill into law during a private ceremony:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. I think it’s the right, just thing to abolish the death penalty. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”
This is legal, logical and ethical gibberish. To begin with, the same logic could be applied to all punishment in the criminal justice system. Justice isn’t going to be achieved in every case; that is an impossible standard. Quinn can’t possibly mean this would require eliminating the penal system, but that’s what his words suggest.
More importantly, however, Quinn’s non-logic doesn’t explain why the death penalty can’t be employed when justice can be assured, as when a killer is apprehended on the scene. What would be “unjust” about executing Sirhan Sirhan, or, if he were not mad as a hatter, Jared Loughner? What would be unjust about executing a monster like Stephen Hayes, the Petit family home invader? Why was it unjust to execute Timothy McVeigh,? If Quinn really believes that it is impossible to limit the death penalty to the extreme cases in which guilt is undeniable and the crime is enormous, he is both historically ignorant and logically impaired.
That’s not what is really going on, however. In all the great controversies involving ethics and policy, both sides have sufficiently strong and well-documented arguments in support of their positions that a definitive resolution on the merits can never be reached. In these situations, what usually happens is that someone in power steps forward, disingenuously announces that the matter has been settled beyond any rational objection, and just does what he or she wants to do, even though the official making the decision doesn’t really understand both sides sufficiently to make an informed decision, and is incapable of defending the decision made.
That’s Governor Quinn. It is wrong for vital public policy issues to be settled in such a slipshod and intellectually dishonest matter, but the alternative might be for them never to be settled at all.