Early last month, three men were released from an Illinois prison after 20 years of incarceration for a murder that evidence now shows they didn’t commit.
Two months prior to the release of these three men, the death penalty was one of the topics in a Republican primary presidential debate. The unequivocal championing of the death penalty by one of the candidates turned out to receive the biggest applause of the night. Even more troubling than the fact that a crowd of people would be so motivated to take the life of another person was the callousness with which the candidate in question talked about those for whom he had signed warrants to be put to death.
When pressed by moderator, Brian Williams, whether he ever was kept up at night over having authorized 234 executions (that’s an average of almost two every single month he has been in office), the governor said he has no trouble sleeping. His apparent lack of soberness about putting people to death and certitude that he never struggles with worrying about whether any of them might have been innocent was deeply worrisome to me.
My mind immediately went to that debate when I watched the news story about the three innocent men in Illinois. I turned to my wife and blurted out my first thought: “It’s a good thing they were in the Illinois justice system and not the Texas justice system. You can’t release a dead man.” Undoubtedly, the kind of justice some espouse would have put those three men to death long ago without a second thought.
The death penalty may satisfy our impulse for retribution and our sense of outrage over things so heinous as murder, but is it really the right course of action in what is to be a civilized and thoughtful society? Can those who claim to be strongly pro-life legitimately claim such while applauding two deaths a month without any thought given to the fact that maybe, just maybe, we get it wrong sometimes about guilt and innocence?
The story of three men in Illinois and the troublesome attitudes of a candidate and audience members uncovered in a presidential debate should cause reasonable people to at least soberly question whether the death penalty should be used and to perhaps come to oppose its use altogether.