Pope Francis was unequivocal last week. Capital punishment, he said, was against Catholic teachings in all circumstances – and the church should campaign to end the practice.
It's a pivot worth noting, especially for Illinois, which has a convoluted history with executions. There hasn’t been one here since March 1999, but Gov. Bruce Rauner in May suggested the state should reinstate the death penalty for mass killers or those who kill police officers.
For the Catholic Church, capital punishment also was seen as permissible if it was the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." In other words, it was OK if the crime was especially awful or the life of someone else was in peril.
Pope Francis closed that rule. He said the death penalty amounted to an "attack" on humanity and should never be allowed. Ambiguous this was not, and it fit a pattern of change for the pontiff, whose papacy has focused heavily on mercy in social issues and criminal justice.
In Illinois, the death penalty was suspended, along with other states, following the landmark U.S. Supreme decision in Furman v. Georgia case in 1972, only to be reinstated in 1974, then dropped again a year later because of a state Supreme Court ruling, before being allowed in 1977.
Gov. George Ryan in January 2000 famously placed a moratorium on the death penalty, citing what he said was a flawed system. Between 1977 and 2000, about a dozen inmates were put to death, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, in 1994.
The Ryan move was widely seen as a tactic to distract from his own mounting corruption problems, and indeed he received massive attention in the aftermath. Gov. Pat Quinn officially did away with the practice in 2011.
That ban should continue, for reasons distinct from reasons of catechism. There are simply fundamental flaws with the death penalty.
There’s the incredible story of former death row inmate Anthony Porter, in prison for 17 years for killing two people in 1982. He was within days of being executed when a group of Northwestern Illinois University students found new evidence, and a man later admitted to the murders.
Charles B. Palmer spent 18 years in custody for killing Decatur attorney William Helmbacher and was eligible for the death penalty. He was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2016, and the Macon County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to retry him.
These are just two cases.
In 2011, Ron Safer, a lawyer who has defended death penalty cases, told Reuters after Quinn signed legislation ending capital punishment: “It is naive to think that we haven’t executed an innocent person. We stop looking after they’re executed.”
Even one innocent person being imprisoned is too many. Executing someone who is blameless is a tragedy.