Death penalty abolished but battle not over

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, March 27, 2011

When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law abolishing the death penalty in Illinois — and commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life in prison without parole — on March 9, he won the applause of Catholic and prolife activists around the state and the country.

Now supporters of the abolition of the death penalty must stay together to fight bills that have already been introduced that would bring back capital punishment for more limited lists of crimes, said Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. Some bills would reinstate the death penalty for first-degree murder, while one calls for a statewide referendum on the issue.

The conference speaks on public policy issues for the bishops of the six Illinois dioceses, and opposed the death penalty primarily because it is a life issue, Gilligan said. However, more practical arguments helped convince a majority of legislators that it was time to end it, he said.

Reasons against

“There are so many pragmatic reasons against it,” he said. “That’s why so many of them were able to vote the way they did.”

Those reasons include the cost of capital punishment — which, when the cost of ongoing appeals that can take decades are included, far exceeds the cost of life without parole — as well as the real possibility of executing someone for a crime he or she did not commit. Illinois executed 12 people between 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, and 2000, when former Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium on executions. Twenty prisoners who had been convicted and sentenced to death were freed because they were found to be innocent.

The other reason legislators were able to abolish it is because it is possible for criminals to be sentenced to life without parole, he said. Without that assurance, the death penalty would likely not have been abolished.

Circumstances ‘rare’

That would have been a blow for pro-life Catholics, said Margie Manczko Breen, director of the archdiocese’s Respect Life Office.

Her office has put time and effort into educating pro-life Catholics about the church’s teaching that the circumstances which would allow for capital punishment “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267).

“If we are pro-life, if we are working for the dignity and sanctity of life, it’s for all human beings,” Breen said. “Even if someone has committed a brutal crime, that person’s life has human dignity.”

Among her office’s efforts was hosting a show on Relevant Radio with Vicki Schieber of Catholics Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty. Schieber’s daughter, Shannon, was raped and murdered in 1998, and Schieber and her husband spoke against capital punishment for her killer and now are active in educating fellow Catholics on the issue.

Breen said that people also must understand that any human system of capital punishment is necessarily flawed. Illinois, she pointed out, was 50 hours from executing Anthony Porter, who was later found to be innocent.

“To know our justice system is so flawed, to put someone on death row and possibly end their life, I wouldn’t want that on my conscience,” she said.

Breen acknowledged that she does meet people who tell her they are pro-life and support the death penalty. That’s when she tries to educate them about the church’s position.

“How can we play God?” she said. “We need to give them the opportunity to live a life in prison. I think it will allow for a person to have conversion experience.”