| Unfair hearing
So when will the system be fixed' How much more risk can we afford' Will we actually have to execute an innocent person before the tragedy that is our capital punishment system in Illinois is really understood' This summer, a district court judge in the United States of America held the federal death penalty was unconstitutional and noted that with the number of recent exonerations based on DNA and new scientific technology, we undoubtedly executed innocent people before this technology emerged.
As I prepare to leave office, I had to ask myself whether I could really live with the prospect of knowing that I had the opportunity to act but that I failed to do so because I might be criticized. Could I take the chance that our capital punishment system might be reformed, that wrongful convictions might not occur, that enterprising students of journalism might free more men from death row' A system that’s so fragile that it depends on young students of journalism is seriously flawed.
“There is no honourable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.” That’s what Abraham Lincoln said about the bloody war between the states. It was a war fought to end the sorriest chapter in American history — the institution of slavery. While we are not in a civil war now, we are facing what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time. Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights has taken the position that the death penalty is being sought with increasing frequency in some states against the poor and minorities.
Our own study showed that juries were more likely to sentence to death if the victim was white than if the victim was black — three-and-a-half times more likely to be exact. We are not alone. Just this month, Maryland released a study of its death penalty system and racial disparities exist there too.
This week, Mamie Till died. Her son, Emmett, was lynched in Mississippi in the Fifties. She was a strong advocate of civil rights and reconciliation. In fact just three weeks ago, she was the key- note speaker at the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation event in Chicago. This group...opposes the death penalty even though its family members have been lost to senseless killing...
Is our system fair to all' Is justice blind' These are important human rights issues.
Another issue that came up in my individual, case-by-case review was the issue of international law. The Vienna Convention protects US citizens abroad and foreign nationals in the US. It provides that if you are arrested, you should be afforded the opportunity to contact your consulate. There are five men on death row who were denied that internationally-recognized human right. Mexico’s President Vicente Fox contacted me to express his deep concern for the Vienna Convention violations. If we do not uphold international law here, we cannot expect our citizens to be protected outside the US.
My commission recommended the supreme court conduct a proportionality review of our system in Illinois. While our appellate courts perform a case-by-case review of the appellate record, they have not done such a big picture study. Instead, we tinker with a case-by-case review as each appeal lands on their docket. In 1994, near the end of his distinguished career on the supreme court of the US, Harry Blackmun wrote an influential dissent in the body of law on capital punishment. Twenty years earlier, he was part of the court that issued the landmark Furman decision.