Done with the death penalty


Illinois last week became the latest state to stop committing what in some cases may amount to government-sponsored murder. California should be next.

More than a dozen people have been wrongly sent to death row in Illinois since 1977, a record that prompted then-Gov. George Ryan to impose a capital punishment moratorium in 2000. Last week it became permanent when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill banning the practice; at the same time, he commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life without the possibility of parole.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the death penalty, but our biggest complaint has long been that the American justice system, good as it is, isn’t perfect. Police, prosecutors and juries make mistakes. Once a convict is executed, it’s too late to set him or her free if evidence of innocence later emerges. Quinn agrees, and his signing statement was dead-on: “Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.”


Illinois isn’t an aberration — innocent people in many other states, including California, have been sentenced to death. Our zeal for executions is also expensive. If California went the same way as Illinois — abolishing the death penalty and commuting the sentences of those on death row — it would save the Golden State an estimated $1 billion over five years. (This is derived by adding the $137 million a year in court, security and other costs associated with the death penalty to the $400 million that would be saved by not building a new death row facility to replace the crumbling one at San Quentin.)

Illinois is now the 16th state to ban capital punishment. Quinn’s critics believe his actions were a betrayal of the state’s voters, who widely favor the death penalty, just as they do in California. But state-sponsored murder is the ultimate violation not only of civil rights but of human rights, which is why most developed nations have ended capital punishment. Our constitutional system places a high value on protecting individual civil rights even when the majority wants to take them away.

We execute convicted killers not because it has a deterrent effect on crime — there’s little evidence that it does — but because of the visceral satisfaction derived from this form of “justice.” But California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 because of court delays, so who’s satisfied? Society would be protected just as well by putting convicts in prison for life, without the moral, legal and financial complications of killing them.