| Take a closer view
The court decided that the death penalty statutes in use throughout the country were fraught with severe flaws that rendered them unconstitutional. Quite frankly, they were the same problems we see here in Illinois. To many, it looked like the Furman decision meant the end of the death penalty in the United States of America.
This was not the case. Many states responded to Furman by developing and enacting new and improved death penalty statutes. In 1976, four years after it had decided Furman, Justice Blackmun joined the majority of the US supreme court in deciding to give the states a chance with these new and improved death penalty statutes. There was great optimism in the air.
This was the climate in 1977, when the Illinois legislature was faced with the momentous decision of whether to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois. I was a member of the general assembly at that time and when I pushed the green button in favour of reinstating the death penalty in this great state, I did so with the belief that whatever problems had plagued the capital punishment system in the past were now being cured. I am sure that most of my colleagues who voted with me that day shared that view.
But 20 years later, after affirming hundreds of death penalty decisions, Justice Blackmun came to the realization, in the twilight of his distinguished career, that the death penalty remains fraught with “arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake.” He expressed frustration with a 20-year struggle to develop procedural and substantive safeguards. In a now famous dissent he wrote in 1994, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”
One of the few disappointments of my legislative and executive career is that the general assembly failed to work with me to reform our deeply flawed system.
I don’t know why legislators could not heed the rising voices of reform. I don’t know how many more systemic flaws we needed to uncover before they would be spurred to action.
Three times I proposed reforming the system with a package that would restrict the use of jailhouse snitches, create a statewide panel to determine death eligible cases, and reduce the number of crimes eligible for death. These reforms would not have created a perfect system, but they would have dramatically reduced the chance for error in the administration of the ultimate penalty.
The governor has the constitutional role in our state of acting in the interest of justice and fairness. Our state constitution provides broad powers to the governor to issue reprieves, pardons and commutations. Our supreme court has reminded inmates petitioning them that the last resort for relief is the governor. At times the executive clemency power has perhaps been a crutch for courts to avoid making the kind of major change that I believe our system needs.