Illinois’s Death Penalty Ban: Defensible Decision, Indefensible Reasoning

Justice.

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.

19 thoughts on “Illinois’s Death Penalty Ban: Defensible Decision, Indefensible Reasoning

  1. While I like the title, I don’t like your reasoning. This was a short statement. Should he have gone into detail about how the death penalty is applied more often to blacks than whites? About the exonerations of death row inmates, including those who confessed? Should he have talked about how some police are bad actors, and have fabricated evidence? Should he have talked about disparate punishments and how post death penalty, no found wrong can be possibly lessened? This is an extremely complex topic and one sentence can’t do it justice. I see the statement as a rough summation of many valid ideas, not the totality of his reasoning.

    You don’t like the result, so you assume he isn’t qualified to make the decision or defend the decision from a single statement.

    Also, some of your arguments do not make the case you intend. Arguing that there could be situations where guilt is 100% assured doesn’t detract at all from the uneven application argument (part of the broken system). Moreover, you created a strawman. Quin didn’t argue that capital punishment couldn’t possibly be applied properly, just that it wasn’t being applied properly. You switched midstream from arguing that he was inethical to arguing that you don’t like his reasoning, and it doesn’t appear that you realized it.

    Later, you seem to support the idea that if there are 2 sides with rational arguments, we must keep the status quo. Was that intended?

    • You need a nap.

      Quinn said it couldn’t be fixed. He’s clearly wrong. The arguments you mentioned have nothing to do with the justice of executing a Timothy McVeigh. What does a “found wrong” have to do with him? Or Loughner?

      Your point makes no sense. If the only people who could be put to death were those who killed someone in front of witnesses and were apprehended in the act, how does that have anything to do with “misapplication of the system?”

      Quinn doesn’t have an obligation to give a long speech about his rationale, though it would help, but he does have an obligation not to spout garbage. “…we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case” is indeed garbage, and I explained why. As a general statement, it requires perfection of a system for it to be valid. That is absurd. As applied to capital punishment, it is also wrong: a system that was sufficiently narrow could guarantee justice: I know for a fact that no assassin or killer caught in the cat in front of a crowd of witnesses who was linked to the weapon has ever been shown to be innocent after his execution. Perfect. Show me a case to the contrary, or back off.

      • Quinn said it couldn’t be fixed. He’s clearly wrong. The arguments you mentioned have nothing to do with the justice of executing a Timothy McVeigh. What does a “found wrong” have to do with him? Or Loughner?

        I think you missed my mention of the uneven application argument.

        Your point makes no sense. If the only people who could be put to death were those who killed someone in front of witnesses and were apprehended in the act, how does that have anything to do with “misapplication of the system?”

        See above.

        I know for a fact that no assassin or killer caught in the [act] in front of a crowd of witnesses who was linked to the weapon has ever been shown to be innocent after his execution. Perfect. Show me a case to the contrary, or back off.

        And see above again. There were two parts to the problem. Innocence and disparate punishment. While disparate punishment happens across the system, death does get people’s goats stronger than 20 years in prison instead of 15 years. That there are other inequalities doesn’t detract from this inequality at all.

        • Oops. I think I tried to “quote” instead of “cite.” I demand a preview button that I will never use.

          Quinn said it couldn’t be fixed. He’s clearly wrong. The arguments you mentioned have nothing to do with the justice of executing a Timothy McVeigh. What does a “found wrong” have to do with him? Or Loughner?

          I think you missed my mention of the uneven application argument.

          Your point makes no sense. If the only people who could be put to death were those who killed someone in front of witnesses and were apprehended in the act, how does that have anything to do with “misapplication of the system?”

          See above.

          I know for a fact that no assassin or killer caught in the [act] in front of a crowd of witnesses who was linked to the weapon has ever been shown to be innocent after his execution. Perfect. Show me a case to the contrary, or back off.

          And see above again. There were two parts to the problem. Innocence and disparate punishment. While disparate punishment happens across the system, death does get people’s goats stronger than 20 years in prison instead of 15 years. That there are other inequalities doesn’t detract from this inequality at all.

  2. As you noted, honorable people can disagree on this one. My one big problem with the DP is the assumption by so many of the infalliblity of the justice system.

    Too many convicts on Death Row have been exonerated for me to give a “yes” to the DP. Once a prisoner is executed, it’s a little late to say, “Oops! Sorry ’bout that.”

    • As I try to point out in the article, that argument does not apply to a narrowly applied death penalty that couldn’t possibly lead to a mistaken execution. There is such a thing as certainty. Any system that allows Steven Hayes to continue to live offends me.

  3. I don’t think Quinn’s statement is unethical based on what he is trying to say. I think it is a little unclear what he was trying to say, and it may be unethical to say something unclear about such a weighty topic, but I think what he is saying is that it is impossible to ensure that justice is always done in a case (witness all of the cases where a convicted person is later exonerated). So long as that person is still alive, it is possible for the state to make some restitution to the wrongfully convicted. Once a person is killed, restitution to that person becomes impossible. Where there is life, there is hope that justice can someday be done. Where there is death, meaningful justice becomes impossible.

    That is not a facile argument. There have been many cases where an accused has been convicted based on what was considered good evidence at the time but was later found to be flawed. You are correct that you might be able to avoid most if not all miscarriages of justice if only those who were apprehended by the police at the scene of the crime, in flagrante delicto, but I think that the floodgates argument applies here. Once you are willing to apply the death penalty for one standard of evidence, you are more likely to be willing to apply it for a slightly lower standard of evidence and so on. For example, you list Timothy McVeigh as a good candidate for execution, but he was not apprehended planting explosives at the scene of the crime, but rather while driving after the incident. Even Steven Hayes was arrested one block away from the Petit’s home, not while he was committing his crimes.

    • Eric, that’s just not true. A standard can be written as narrowly as we want. You don’t want to include McVeigh or Hayes, fine—how about Sirhan Sirhan? I see no danger in limiting the executions to the real slam dunks, but even if its narrower still. Hell, I don’t care it it only applies to one guy in a blue moon—a sane, racist, serial killer of ten or more children whom he rapes, tortures, skins, eats and sends the heads to the parents in a box, who is apprehended in his home while skinning his latest victim and is surrounded by videotapes of him killing each one, and who confesses on the spot. The law says when all these elements are present, he is eligible for the death penalty. That’s the law. No slippery slopes.

      If the problem is just lack of certainty, THAT problem can be addressed, and to say otherwise is silly.

      • I don’t think uncertainty can ever be eliminated. I agree that there are some criminals that we know pretty are almost absolutely sure that they are criminal and these people could probably be safely executed without worrying about executing an innocent (Sirhan Sirhan would be an example). Unfortunately, any standard of proof involves a penumbra of uncertainty and it is not unethical nor to state that no such penumbra is acceptable when we are dealing with the possibility of killing an innocent person. For example, your standard of only executing those who were witnessed in the act by the police may be a good one, but will always be situations where it is uncertain whether this standard has been met. For example, Steven Hayes was seen fleeing the scene of the crime by police and was apprehended a block away from the crime. Is this sufficient to satisfy the “witnessed by police requirement” or not? If it is, then, on the spectrum of certainty, the penumbra just shifts a little further towards more executions (the next question might be whether it is okay if the police saw a person very similar to the description provided by non-police witnesses near the scene of the crime, but not fleeing, or whether the evidence of a police officer who was not on duty who witnesses d the crime suffices). If it is not, then the penumbra shifts towards fewer executions (the next question might be whether the evidence of police and other witnesses who were on the scene at the time of the crime is adequate when there was low light levels that could make it a bit harder to identify the accused).

        Also, a murder conviction requires more than the act of murder. There also must be intent to kill. The evidence of police and other witnesses at the scene cannot show with the certainty that one would desire that there was intent (Sirhan might have claimed that he believed the gun was not loaded and that he was merely trying to scare RFK. While this sounds preposterous, such a claim would create doubt that no police evidence could disprove to the level desired unless the police actually saw him load the gun).

  4. I’m not really on topic here but I wasn’t sure if you have covered this anywhere else: do you have an ethical position on whether death row inmates should be allowed to donate organs?

    • Hadn’t thought about it. If it is a free and informed consent, I don’t know why it would be unethical, unless someone’s worried about a horror movie “I have Jack the Ripper’s heart” problem. Am I missing something?

      • I haven’t read up much about it myself but briefly saw it being mentioned on the news. I think there was some concern about how that would affect the way death row inmates get executed and so forth e.g. if it was a heart donation.

  5. Are there no politicians left capable of logic? Can’t they hire a speechwriter who can? If we can’t be sure of achieving justice in each case, we won’t put an innocent person to death, but we will let them rot in prison for the rest of their lives? A logically consistent argument would be to release ALL the prisoners over the fear of punishing an innocent person.
    Now, if you are commuting the sentences for life so that you have time to determine if any were wrongfully convicted, that’s different. If you are going to commute the sentences because you are going to announce a reform of the system and you don’t want to commit to an action (execution) that you can’t undo, that’s different. But, if you are going to admit that your system has known flaws that are sentencing innocent people to prison and lethal injection, but you aren’t going to do anything about those flaws, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

    • Recall that the previous Governor, now Federal Prisoner JY476290X, just commuted everyone’s sentence for the same reason, even those in which there was no POSSIBLE chance of error (films, eye-witnesses, caught in the act, bought the weapon, fingerprints, DNA, open confession, brutal killing, normal IQ, no mental disease). Brilliant.

      • Everytime you ignore the racial bias in the death penalty and that the death penalty is qualitatively different than prison, it’s like a discordant note. You are better than ignoring an extremely important piece of the argument when it goes against you.

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