Heard the one about Jones and Laverty? In 1981, at the age of 23, George Jones was charged with home invasion, aggravated battery, armed violence, attempted murder, and the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. His trial–a death penalty case–was under way when Area Two violent crimes detective Frank Laverty came forward and testified that he had written a memo saying that Jones’s arrest had been a case of mistaken identity, and that the other detectives who had testified knew there was evidence implicating a different man. Laverty’s commanding officer took the stand and admitted that he had locked up Laverty’s memo and had shown it to no one. The judge ultimately dismissed the charges against Jones, saying that some of the detectives’ behavior in the case “bordered on deliberate misconduct,” and a federal jury later awarded Jones $801,000 in damages. The Police Department showed its appreciation of Laverty when he requested a transfer from Area Two: the detective was moved to headquarters, where he was given the job of watching police recruits give urine samples.
How about the story of Tillis and Cobb? Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb were sentenced to death for the 1977 robbery and murder of two owners of an Uptown hot dog stand. The case bounced back and forth, compiling a history of hung juries and a successful appeal, and the two men were eventually tried five times for the crime. In 1983, after the third trial, Chicago Lawyer published a story about the case written by Flora Johnson Skelly. By the sheerest chance, a man named Michael Falconer read the article and recognized the name of Phyllis Santini, the prosecution’s chief witness, as someone he had known a few years earlier. At the time of the hot-dog-stand murder, Falconer, a University of Wisconsin graduate, had been working on a factory assembly line and thinking of going to law school. Phyllis Santini worked on the line near him, and the two were friendly enough that twice Falconer had baby-sat for Santini’s children. When Falconer read the Chicago Lawyer story, he called the attorney for Tillis and Cobb, and eventually he testified in court that Santini had told him that she and her boyfriend, a man named Johnny Brown, had robbed a restaurant; that the boyfriend had shot someone during the robbery; and that she was trying to work out a deal with the prosecution. Falconer said that when he first heard the tale, he had not taken her seriously, that it was only when he read the Chicago Lawyer article that he realized she was telling the truth. Falconer made a star witness: by the time he was called to testify in defense of Tillis and Cobb he was working as a prosecutor in the Lake County state’s attorney’s office. Tillis and Cobb were eventually released, having spent nine years in jail, four of them on death row.
Then there’s the story of Goodfriend and Justice. In 1979, a man named Cornelius Lewis was convicted of murder, armed robbery, and aggravated kidnapping, and he was sentenced to death by a Decatur jury. He was not innocent. At some point in the trial, the Macon County prosecutor showed Lewis’s lawyer an FBI rap sheet listing four felonies committed by the defendant–one in Minnesota, one in California, and two in New York. The prosecutor said that although he had certified copies of the Minnesota and California felonies, he had not been able to obtain certified copies of the New York convictions, which were by then about 15 years old. The prosecutor asked Lewis’s attorney to stipulate that his client had four previous felony convictions, and the attorney agreed, believing it was less damaging to stipulate the four crimes than to have his client cross-examined about them. When Lewis later initiated postconviction proceedings in Illinois courts, the Macon County state’s attorney’s office tried again to get certified copies of the New York convictions through official channels, and again the office failed. Assistant state’s attorney Jeff Justice and assistant attorney general Neal Goodfriend, who were the prosecutors during the postconviction process, then decided to try the back door: they got in touch with a New York City cop, and the cop was able to cut through the red tape and obtain certified records showing the disposition of the New York charges. The records indicated that one felony charge had been dismissed, and that in the second case Lewis had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Goodfriend and Justice did not disclose that information to J. Steven Beckett, Lewis’s new attorney, nor did they tell the judge at the postconviction hearing. They continued to claim, both on paper and in oral arguments, and even before the Illinois Supreme Court, that Lewis had four prior felony convictions. It was only when the case was filed a second time with the U.S. Supreme Court that Lewis’s attorney, with the assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, learned that the two New York felonies were not felonies at all. In November 1987, eight years after the original crime, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Lewis’s sentencing had indeed been prejudiced, saying that while two felony convictions would constitute an aggravating factor, four felony convictions would “indicate an absence of mitigating circumstances and a life committed to criminal activity,” and that if the truth had been known back in 1979, it was possible that “the petitioner would have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment”–not to death. The court went on to say that it found the conduct of Justice and Goodfriend “shocking,” saying that the state of Illinois could well have executed Lewis with two officials of the state knowing that he had been sentenced “on the basis of assumptions concerning his criminal record which were materially untrue. . . . Their conduct raises serious questions as to the role of attorneys representing the state in capital cases.”
The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission investigated Goodfriend and Justice and declined to censure them. Goodfriend now works for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Justice is in private practice in Decatur. Both declined to comment for this story. Cornelius Lewis went before a second jury, which declined to give him the death penalty. He is now doing natural life in Stateville prison in Joliet.
The stories of Jones, Tillis, Cobb, and Lewis come to mind in the wake of the death of Charles Walker, who was executed September 12 for the murders of Kevin Paule, 21, and his fiancee Sharon Winker, 25. But for the abnormal courage of Frank Laverty (who was later shunned by his fellow policemen), the fluke of Mike Falconer reading a Chicago Lawyer story (he was berated for coming forward by the prosecutor in the case), and the persistence of Steven Beckett, Cornelius Lewis’s last attorney, Jones, Tillis, Cobb, and Lewis might now all be sitting on death row, waiting to follow Mr. Walker to the state’s execution chamber.
The obvious lesson would seem to be that justice administered by human beings will always be imperfect, that policemen, prosecution witnesses, and even prosecutors will sometimes lie and mislead juries even though someone’s life is at stake. And even juries are not always as rational as we would like to believe they are: in 1985, a jury foreman in Daytona Beach, Florida, said that some of her fellow jury members, who had just given out a death sentence, had conducted their deliberations hurriedly because they did not want to miss a “happy hour” at a local tavern. Despite all this, and despite a state history that includes the execution of at least four innocent men, the death penalty in Illinois remains immensely popular.
The Walker execution has not produced any horror stories that would compare with the above. It did, however, have its share of folly. Herewith a review:
The idea that there is something wrong with capital punishment seems to have been incorporated into the design of the very machinery used by the state for executions. The lethal injection machine used to kill Charles Walker has two start buttons, only one of which will start the flow of the lethal solutions into the condemned man’s arm. Two people–state law demands no qualifications or training–are recruited to push the buttons, and the machine itself randomly selects the executioner, allowing each of the two button pushers to believe that the other guy did it.
The machine was designed by the now infamous Fred Leuchter Jr., a Boston-area man who until two months ago seemed to have a lock on the market for execution hardware in the United States. That lock on the market led him to expand–foolishly–into a new field, that of expert witness on the subject of gas chambers. Leuchter was first recruited for that role by Ernst Zundel, a Canadian bookseller and the publisher of the 1974 booklet Did Six Million Really Die?, which argued that the number of people executed by the Nazis in World War II had been exaggerated. Zundel was charged with violating a Canadian law prohibiting the dissemination of false information that is damaging to social tolerance. Desperate to find an expert witness, Zundel wrote to corrections officials in states that deployed gas chambers for execution. A warden in Missouri, a state that has since switched to the lethal injection method, wrote back and recommended Leuchter.
Leuchter, who did not acknowledge repeated requests for an interview for this story, was paid approximately $37,000 to make a trip to Poland, where he examined the sites of the concentration camps Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek. His team consisted of his wife, a cinematographer, a draftsman, and an interpreter. He did not go into the archives of the camps, but instead gathered mortar and masonry from the buildings “surreptitiously,” at times breaking building locks to do so. He had his building and soil samples analyzed by a lab in Westborough, Massachusetts, for traces of Zyklon-B, a hydrogen-cyanide compound used by the Nazis. He concluded that the wall samples lacked significant traces of the gas and that the buildings were too poorly ventilated and flimsy to have been used as execution chambers for thousands of human beings.
Leuchter testified accordingly at Zundel’s trial in April 1988, and his conclusions were later used in the defense of Imre Finta, a retired Toronto restaurateur and former Hungarian policeman who was prosecuted in Canada for deporting 8,600 Jews to death camps during World War II. Leuchter’s judgment propelled him to stardom in the Holocaust revisionist movement (which advances the notion that the Holocaust is a Jewish hoax concocted to elicit support for Israel). In March 1989, in an address before an international conference of revisionists, Leuchter proclaimed that “promoting this lie–the gas-extermination holocaust claim–is ludicrous and insulting to every individual on this planet.” The Massachussetts inventor also put together a 192-page document called The Leuchter Report: The End of a Myth, in which he maintained that “there were no execution gas chambers at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Birkenau.” That report and a videotape of Leuchter’s journey are now being distributed internationally by various anti-Semitic organizations.
Holocaust survivors and their supporters commissioned French pharmacist Jean-Claude Pressac to write a rebuttal of The Leuchter Report. Pressac, author of Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, became an expert on the camp in an irregular way: he began his study with the belief that the Holocaust had not taken place, and he ended up with a 563-page document that proved, entirely on the basis of a technical analysis of the camp–including crematory manufacturers’ instructions, architectural drawings, specifications for poison gas–that the buildings at Auschwitz had indeed been capable of the efficient extermination of more than a million people. In his rebuttal of Leuchter’s report, Pressac says that the Massachusetts inventor incorrectly assessed the layout and locale of the chambers, that his calculations were grossly in error, and that he had not bothered to examine German blueprints of the gas chambers or even Nazi documents in the Auschwitz museum.
The state of Illinois was oblivious to Leuchter’s sideline as a revisionist and only learned of it in mid-August 1990, roughly three weeks before Leuchter’s machine was to be put to use. At just about the same time, Illinois corrections officials received a memo addressed to “All Capital Punishment States” from Ed Carnes, an assistant attorney general in Alabama. “You should be aware of some facts concerning a self-styled “execution technology’ expert named Fred Leuchter from Massachusetts,” Carnes wrote. According to Carnes, Leuchter, who had been presenting himself as an engineer, had no engineering degree, no science degree, and no medical training; his sole diploma was a BA in history. The memo went on to point out that the execution expert had never seen an execution and was not above playing both sides in the capital punishment battle.
Carnes went on to tell the following story: In July, as the execution of an Alabama inmate named Wallace Thomas approached, the prisoner’s attorney filed a motion claiming that the state’s electric chair was unreliable. The Alabama attorney general’s office then paid Leuchter $450 for an affidavit in which Leuchter said that there was nothing wrong with the old system except that it was old and that he did not anticipate that there would be any problem with the scheduled execution. The state also secured testimony from an electrical and biomedical engineer who had inspected and tested the chair, and after seeing the two experts’ testimony, the federal district court dismissed the prisoner’s motion, allowing the countdown to the execution to continue.
About six hours before Wallace Thomas was due to sit in the chair, his attorney filed suit before the Alabama Supreme Court asking for a stay, arguing again that the machinery was unreliable. It turned out that the attorney had received a phone call from Leuchter that very day, and the alleged engineer said that he had changed his mind, that Alabama’s existing chair was “old and subject to failure.” Leuchter’s new affidavit, however, seemed to be urging the court to stay the execution until a full inquiry could be made, not into the capability of the Alabama chair, but into his own contract negotiations: Leuchter had learned that his agreement with the Department of Corrections to supply a new chair was not going to be honored by the Alabama Finance Department. In his affidavit, Leuchter said that he found the state’s actions “reprehensible” and that he felt he “had been used.” The Alabama Supreme Court denied the motion, Thomas went to the chair, and the old chair did what it was supposed to.
The Carnes memo went on to say that something similar happened in Virginia a few days later. On the day before a scheduled execution, the condemned man’s attorney filed a habeas corpus petition that included a claim that Virginia’s chair, which had never malfunctioned, might be faulty. The claim was supported by an affidavit from Leuchter, who said the chair was obsolete and prone to failure and that the state could end up with a “living, brain-dead vegetable sitting in the electric chair, the state having no means to complete the execution.” The court rejected the petition, saying that Leuchter’s claim had “very limited credibility” because it came from a man who had bid unsuccessfully to replace the electrodes in the machine.
That scenario was played out again in Illinois. In mid-August, the Department of Corrections suddenly found itself under pressure from representatives of Holocaust survivors who argued that it was despicable to do business with a man who was spreading such cruel and bizarre propaganda about Nazi death camps. At the same time, corrections officials realized that they were dealing with a man who was an engineer only in his own mind. The state then canceled its contract with Leuchter for “execution support,” depriving him of an $8,230 consulting fee that he would have earned had he been called in to certify that the machine was in good order just before Walker was executed. Leuchter responded by claiming that the machine, which had a “two-year or two-execution guarantee,” might not work because it had been improperly stored and maintained, even though he had serviced the machine on May 31 and had told state officials that it was in good working order.
In the meantime, Illinois’ death penalty opponents, known among themselves as abolitionists, had not been sitting meekly on the sidelines. Using the Freedom of Information Act, they acquired various Leuchter documents from the state. They discovered that the Massachusetts inventor had issued diplomas to Stateville warden Thomas Roth and six other Department of Corrections officials who had completed Leuchter’s “Lethal Injection Training Program.” The diplomas were of the all-purpose, fill-in-the-blank variety that one might purchase at a neighborhood stationery store and issue to children who had completed a bicycle safety course. Leuchter had filled in the blanks to indicate that the bearer was certified as a “Lethal Injection Technician.” The term, which has no legal or medical meaning, seems to have been invented by Leuchter, who signed each diploma as “chief engineer.” To the abolitionists it seemed that those whom the state now intended to rely upon to carry out the execution had been certified as capable by an impostor.
The abolitionists’ Freedom of Information Act petitions also netted a copy of the “Leuchter Machine Operating Manual,” and they asked Dr. Edward A. Brunner to analyze it. Brunner is chairman of the departments of anesthesia at Northwestern University Medical School and Northwestern Memorial Hospital; in addition to holding a medical degree, he also holds a PhD in pharmacology. In an affidavit later filed in federal court as part of a class-action suit on behalf of other inmates on death row, Brunner said the procedures outlined in the Leuchter manual were in some places incoherent and in other places could be interpreted in such a way that the inmate would suffer extreme pain. Brunner said that unless adequate precautions were taken, the initial dose of sodium pentathol could sensitize the prisoner’s pharynx, causing him to choke, gag, or vomit, and that the prisoner could then choke on his vomit or swallow his tongue and suffocate. Brunner also said that the manual did not state whether the initial sodium pentathol injection would be done intravenously or intramuscularly; if it was done intramuscularly, the prisoner would feel an extreme burning sensation in his muscles. Brunner also charged that the dosage of sodium pentathol called for in Leuchter’s manual would be inadequate to sedate 20 percent of the population, and a prisoner given an inadequate dosage could “suffer an extremely painful sensation of crushing and suffocation” followed by an excruciating burning sensation in his vein, “equivalent to the sensation of a hot poker being inserted in the arm.” Brunner went on to raise questions about the state execution procedure, which called for the dosages to be determined by “qualified health care personnel,” a term that has no recognized meaning in Illinois law or in the medical field. The state responded with an affidavit, signed by Warden Roth, saying that licensed physicians had been consulted to determine the types and amounts of drugs to be utilized and that three doctors would assist and observe the execution.
On October 23, in Malden, Massachusetts, Fred Leuchter was charged with practicing engineering without a license. He pleaded not guilty. The offense is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of three months in prison and a $500 fine.
The state’s recruitment of three doctors to assist in the Walker execution seemed to imply that the prisoner would be executed in a sound and scientific manner, something that had seemed doubtful in the wake of the revelations about Leuchter and his machine. But the doctors’ involvement also created a new controversy: in agreeing to participate in the execution, the three doctors had decided to violate the ethics of their profession. The Hippocratic oath states in part, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect,” and resolutions of both the American Medical Association and the World Medical Association state that it is unethical for physicians to participate in capital punishment except to certify death.
A doctor who violates the AMA code of ethics can be expelled from the organization. While expulsion in itself does not terminate a doctor’s career or jeopardize his license in Illinois, it can make it difficult for him to affiliate with a hospital, which would be particularly difficult if, for instance, the doctor was a surgeon or an anesthesiologist. And thanks to the National Practitioner Data Bank, which records such blemishes on physicians’ records, a hospital would have little trouble checking out an applicant.
Perhaps of greater consequence, however, was the fact that in agreeing to participate in the execution the three doctors seem to have agreed to violate state law. The Illinois Medical Practice Act forbids a physician to prescribe, administer, distribute, or give a narcotic for other than medically accepted therapeutic purposes. No matter what defense the doctors might concoct, the end result was that they would be enabling Walker to be killed, and death is not generally accepted as therapeutic.
Soon after the state’s recruitment of the doctors was announced, Charles Hoffman, an attorney with the state appellate defender, wrote letters to the Illinois State Medical Disciplinary Board and the Will County state’s attorney, pointing out that the Medical Practice Act was about to be violated by the three as yet unidentified physicians. He also suggested that Walker’s family might consider suing the physicians for malpractice, accusing them of wrongful death, if the execution proceeded.
Additional protests from the legal and medical community began to flow in. The American Association for the Advancement of Science asked Governor Thompson to reconsider the use of physicians, saying that doctors are meant to heal, not kill. Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based group, asked the governor to reveal the doctors’ names so that they could be judged by the public and their peers. More than 300 Illinois lawyers, including many of the most respected in the profession (some of whom favored the death penalty), petitioned Thompson to postpone the execution until the U.S. Supreme Court had reviewed the Illinois death penalty law. Many in the legal community, including four men who have served or are serving on the Illinois Supreme Court, believe the law may be unconstitutional. To comply with the Eighth Amendment, a death penalty law must be applied in a rational manner, not capriciously or arbitrarily, and the Illinois statute seems arbitrary to many observers because it allows county prosecutors unbridled discretion in deciding whether to ask for execution or not. In Illinois, an offense that commands the death penalty in one county can be considered a life imprisonment case just a few miles away.
While those protests were rolling in, the Department of Corrections was making further efforts to clean up its act. On September 10, the state issued a new execution protocol seemingly designed to correct Leuchter’s amateurish estimates and to preclude Brunner’s forecast of an inmate with the chemical equivalent of a hot poker coursing through his veins: the amount of sodium pentathol to be used as a sedative was changed to triple the strength that Leuchter had suggested.
Less than 48 hours after that adjustment, Charles Walker lay down on a gurney in Stateville prison and the recruited doctors inserted a catheter into his arm. The catheter was attached to a saline-drip IV, which was replaced a few minutes later with the lethal injection tubing. At 12:01 AM, the executioners pressed the two start buttons, the chemical solutions flowed as Leuchter had intended them to, and Walker was pronounced dead 11 minutes later.
To date, neither the Will County state’s attorney nor the Illinois State Medical Disciplinary Board has responded to Hoffman’s letter suggesting that the law was violated. The Department of Corrections has steadfastly refused to identify the doctors who took part in Walker’s execution or to disclose how much they were paid. Rumors in the medical and legal community have it that the three are affiliated with a certain state university, but thus far no one has been able to come up with the culprits’ names.
In the weeks since the execution, death penalty abolitionists have had some time to reflect on their campaign. In a recent interview, Marjory Byler, regional director of Amnesty International, expressed some disappointment in the press coverage, which largely ignored the arguments against the death penalty. “I think what people focused on here, because it was easier, was that Walker wanted to die, as if that automatically legitimized the process, as if a convict has the right to determine his sentence,” Byler said. “And I think that derailed what should have been a very important discussion.”
While there was indeed a great deal of focus on the Walker particulars, one fact that went largely unnoted was that when Walker declined further appeals to his sentence, he was not hastening the inevitable but choosing to commit suicide. Two errors made in Walker’s sentencing hearing would probably have resulted in his case being returned to a new jury for sentencing. The first error was the prosecutor’s allegation that if the jurors didn’t sentence Walker to death, he could be back on the street in as little as 20 years; in fact, the only alternative to the death sentence was natural life without possibility of parole. (One of the jurors who took part in the sentencing filed an affidavit saying that the jury had indeed believed that the only way to keep Walker off the street was to give him the death penalty.) The second error was the judge’s permitting testimony concerning the personal characteristics of Walker’s victims to be introduced at the sentencing hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the admission of such evidence in a death penalty hearing “creates a constitutionally unacceptable risk that the jury may impose the death penalty in an arbitrary and capricious manner” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Although to the layman, testimony on the character of the victims may seem necessary for the jury to understand the magnitude of the crime, the effect is to create an unequal system of justice: a man who kills two down-and-outs might escape the death penalty because no one could be found to say what fine people the dead men or women were, while someone who kills two upstanding white folks, as Walker did, would be more likely not to receive any mercy. The effect would be to place more value on the life of the rich than on the life of the poor.
On several occasions in the past few years, Walker explained that he had terminated his appeals because he did not want to be a burden to his family anymore and because he did not think life in prison amounted to much. In 1988, he told reporters from Joliet’s Herald-News that his epitaph should consist of one word–“unworthy”–and two weeks before he died, he filed an affidavit in federal court expressing a desire to pay his “just debt to society with some measure of personal dignity.” In many ways, Walker fit the profile of condemned men in other states who have refused to pursue appeals. Lisa Radelet, a researcher working with the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, assembled a study of 20 such “consensual execution” cases earlier this year and concluded that “there are some common themes. Some of those who were voluntarily executed were motivated by a concern for their family and a desire not to prolong their family’s suffering through years of appeals. Others seemed to have been motivated by their religious beliefs, believing that God required this punishment of them. Some seemed to like the attention and fame that their decision brought, feeling that it made them more than just the ordinary death row inmate. Some seemed to feel that there was more dignity in going to their death on their own time schedule, thus having some control over their fate. For others it seemed to have been a decision born of despair and depression–more like a true ‘suicide.’ They saw their lives as meaningless and themselves as failures. They didn’t have much hope for things being any better in the future, especially if their future was life in prison. For them, death was an end to the suffering of this life. . . . These executions are not really ‘state-assisted suicides’ but rather ‘prisoner-assisted homicides.’. . . The issue is not really what the inmate wants–the state doesn’t abide by the wishes of those inmates who don’t want to die–but rather the state’s right to take life and the consequences for society of exercising that ‘right.'”
Many ordinary citizens who support the notion that the state has a right to take life do so because they think that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. In fact, there have been no studies anywhere that suggest that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. There are many variables that determine homicide rates, but death penalty opponents find it worth noting that FBI statistics indicate that the murder rate in states that use the death penalty is approximately twice the rate of states that use life imprisonment instead. Florida and Texas had the highest number of executions in 1983 and 1984, yet both states were among those with the highest murder rates in the nation in 1985. The homicide rate in Canada dropped after that country abolished capital punishment–but again, that could be due to many factors.
Some supporters of the death penalty put forth an economic argument, believing that “it is cheaper to kill them than to feed them.” But it actually costs far more to execute a prisoner than it does to keep him alive, even if he lives for 40 or 50 years. The cost of execution comes not from materials (chemicals, electricity, gas, and bullets are inexpensive), but from litigation: a death penalty case requires one trial to determine guilt and another to determine the appropriateness of the death penalty. After a jury decides on the death penalty, the prisoner is entitled to nine stages of court appeals to make certain there has been no mistake. A study by the New York State Defenders Association estimated that an execution under a proposed death penalty statute there would cost about $7.3 million, while the cost of imprisoning someone for life would be about $600,000. From 1980 to 1986 the state of Texas executed 19 people at a cost to taxpayers of $183 million, or $9.6 million for each execution. In 1987 the Kansas legislature rejected a death penalty bill in part because the state legislative research office concluded that the annual bill to taxpayers could be $11.5 million.
Abolitionists like Amnesty’s Byler argue that the death penalty discriminates by race, and the federal government now seems to agree: last February, the General Accounting Office released a report saying that with remarkable consistency throughout the United States the race of the victim influenced the likelihood of the perpetrator receiving the death penalty–“i.e., those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” A more reliable predictor than race, however, is income. The death penalty is reserved almost entirely for the poor, and many abolitionists argue that “capital punishment” is an oxymoron, because only those without capital get the punishment.
Proponents’ arguments are surprisingly thin. The Chicago Tribune’s position is a case in point: in an editorial on the day after Walker’s death, the paper conceded that it was impossible to claim that the death penalty was a deterrent, but offered the possibility that somewhere, some other “gunpoint-robber may let his victims live because he doesn’t want to end up like Charles Walker.” (On the other hand, some other gunpoint-robber might decide to kill not only his victims but also any potential witnesses, so that he does not end up like Walker.) The newspaper went on to present its primary argument, which was that society has a right to declare some behavior beyond endurance and deserving of extreme punishment, and that Walker’s crime fell into that category. The paper did not explain why that “declaration” should be execution and not life imprisonment without parole (a penalty that Charles Walker thought far more onerous than death). It did not explain who it thought was listening to that “declaration,” or what ultimate purpose it could certifiably serve. The paper recognized that the death penalty discriminated by race and said that such bias was wrong, but it did not explain how, in a society given to racial and economic bias, that discrimination can be eliminated, nor did it argue that those currently on death row should enjoy any relief because some of them have been the subject of such discrimination.
When all is said and done, however, one fact about capital punishment remains indisputable: the American public wants it. According to Amnesty’s Byler, poll results vary from state to state, ranging from 84 percent in favor in Florida to 68 percent in Nebraska. Byler takes some encouragement from the fact that support for executions seems to drop considerably if those questioned are presented with an alternative that would keep the offenders off the street–a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. In that case, Byler says, support for the death penalty usually drops to a little over 50 percent, and it can drop again if the questioner points out the racial bias in executions.
For those reasons, Byler believes that while support for the death penalty may be a mile wide, it is only an inch deep. That impression was reinforced in forums in the weeks preceding Walker’s death, when Byler says she was often asked, “If Walker is executed, will there be a bloodbath? Will this open the floodgates to more executions?” “It was interesting to me that people were using terms like bloodbath and floodgates,” Byler says. “It seemed as if people here could live with executions if they were few and discretely placed, but they might change their minds if there were a lot of executions and we started to look like Texas.”
Rather than feeling discouraged on the morning after Walker’s execution, Byler says she was outraged, “particularly by politicians who could sound as if they were doing something good for the state of Illinois in supporting the execution, when in fact the streets of Chicago were no safer on the morning of the 12th than they were on the 11th. Hearing about the rabbit that he ate for his last meal, and where they got it, it was just incredibly strange. It’s as if the fascination that people in Britain have with the royal family, we have with people on death row. That made me angry, and more than ever committed to work against the death penalty. It is so clear that internationally we are bucking the trend here, and the United States has done that on other issues and then eventually come around.”
Byler was referring to the fact that execution is unknown now in Western Europe. Even South Africa has stopped executing prisoners, at least temporarily. In using the death penalty Illinois now keeps company with Iran, Iraq, China, and the Soviet Union, states not known for their humane regimes. The mass of Illinoisans, however, seem to feel no shame in that. Unless the abolitionists can figure out a way to change millions of minds quickly, or unless their lawyers prevail in suits challenging the constitutionality of the Illinois statute, Charles Silagy, a man convicted of murdering two women, will lie down on the gurney next spring. Using a fiscally irresponsible process, a law that may be unconstitutional, a machine designed by a fraud, and medical procedures supervised by outlaws, the state of Illinois will then make another declaration about criminal behavior, and we will read, once again, of the inmate’s last meal.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Zielinski.