| Leroy Orange: private mercy'
The other day, I received a call from former South African president, Nelson Mandela, who reminded me that the United States sets the example for justice and fairness for the rest of the world. Today the US is not in league with most of our major allies: Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of South and Central America. These countries rejected the death penalty. We are partners in death with several third world countries. Even Russia has called a moratorium.
The death penalty has been abolished in 12 states. In none of these states has the homicide rate increased. In Illinois last year we had about 1,000 murders, only 2 per cent of that 1,000 were sentenced to death. Where is the fairness and equality in that' The death penalty in Illinois is not imposed fairly or uniformly because of the absence of standards for the 102 Illinois state attorneys, who must decide whether to request the death sentence. Should geography be a factor in determining who gets the death sentence' I don’t think so but in Illinois it makes a difference. You are 5 times more likely to get a death sentence for first degree murder in the rural area of Illinois than you are in Cook County. Where is the justice and fairness in that — where is the proportionality'
The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu wrote to me this week stating that “to take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice. He says justice allows for mercy, clemency and compassion. These virtues are not weakness. “
“In fact the most glaring weakness is that no matter how efficient and fair the death penalty may seem in theory, in actual practice it is primarily inflicted upon the weak, the poor, the ignorant and against racial minorities.” That was a quote from former California governor, Pat Brown. He wrote that in his book, Public Justice, Private Mercy — he wrote that nearly 50 years ago — nothing has changed in nearly 50 years.
I never intended to be an activist on this issue. I watched in surprise as freed death row inmate, Anthony Porter, was released from jail. A free man, he ran into the arms of Northwestern University professor, Dave Protess, who poured his heart and soul into proving Porter’s innocence with his journalism students. He was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him.
It would all be so antiseptic and most of us would not have even paused, except that Anthony Porter was innocent of the double murder for which he had been condemned to die.
After Porter’s case, there was the report by Chicago Tribune reporters, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong, documenting the systemic failures of our capital punishment system. Half of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois had been reversed for a new trial or resentencing. Nearly half!
Thirty three of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point suspended from practicing law.
Of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 were African-American defendants who had been convicted or condemned to die by all-white juries.
More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African-American.
Forty six inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.
I can recall looking at these cases and the information from the Mills/Armstrong series and asking my staff: how does that happen' How in god’s name does that happen' I’m not a lawyer, so somebody explain it to me.
But no one could. Not to this day.
Then over the next few months, there were three more exonerated men, freed because their sentence hinged on a jailhouse informant or new DNA technology proved beyond a shadow of doubt their innocence.
We then had the dubious distinction of exonerating more men than we had executed. Thirteen men found innocent, 12 executed.
As I reported yesterday, there is not a doubt in my mind that the number of innocent men freed from our death row stands at 17, with the pardons of Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange.