On March 9th, Illinois became the fourth US state in the past five years to abandon the death penalty, a significant shift in the country’s growing rejection of capital punishment. After weeks of deliberation, Governor Pat Quinn not only signed a bill into law that kills the death penalty in the state, he also commuted the sentences of all 15 men on death row—men who would have still faced execution even with the new law in place. In 2003, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, famously emptied death row, citing grave concerns about innocent people facing execution as well as “the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole.” Last week, Quinn echoed his predecessor.
For Nathson Fields, one of countless men who were wrongfully convicted after being tortured under corrupt Chicago police commander Jon Burge, the victory was especially sweet. “I spent eleven-and-a-half years on death row for a crime I did not commit. Illinois tossing out the death penalty will affect other states. This will send the message that it can be done. It should be done.”
What can we do to build on the success in Illinois? We can get involved by joining abolitionist groups, signing petitions and contacting our elected officials. But, as Gov. Quinn did, we must also listen to those who have grappled with this system firsthand: former prisoners, death row lawyers, prisoners’ family members, activists and victims of violent crime. Margaret Summers of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Liliana Segura of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty asked ten such experts to share their thoughts, on cases that stand out, on strategies that work and on what Americans should know about the death penalty today.
1 Anthony Graves, exonerated from Texas’s death row in 2010.
I know how easy it was for them to take my freedom and set out to kill me. I feel that if it was that easy, I’m sure there have been many mistakes in the past, that many men and women on death row are innocent. It’s not an infallible system. Anyone can be sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit. That alone is a reason that the death penalty should be abolished. Read Graves’s story here and go to Witness to Innocence.
2 Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative.
Nearly 135 years after Congress enacted the 1875 Civil Rights Act to eliminate racially discriminatory jury selection, the practice continues, especially in death penalty cases where hundreds of death row prisoners have been convicted or condemned by juries where people of color were illegally excluded. This racial bias has undermined the credibility of capital punishment and contributed to the marginalization of African Americans and other racial minorities from full representation when the most critical issues in our communities are decided. Read about Racial Discrimination in jury selection.