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Monday, December 27, 2010

Repealing the Death Penalty -- November 30, 2010

Today I am 36 years old, and I have now spent half of my birthdays in prison. I was arrested when I was 18, and the following 18 years I have been a detainee in Cook County Jail, or a convict in the Illinois Department of Corrections. More than likely, I will remain in maximum-security prisons until my death. I was sentenced to natural life without parole because I purportedly did not try to prevent a murder, and lent my roommate my vehicle. Despite the judge ruling that I was not at the crime scene, and my roommate being acquitted of killing the victim, I am forced to languish in prison until my last breath.

I can prove I did not lend my car on that winter day some 18 years ago, but I will probably never be given the opportunity to do so. The justice system in Illinois is incredibly unfair and cruel, but instead of fixing the system, the state legislature is considering abolishing the death penalty to save the state some money. I heard about this plan today while listening to news radio. I cannot believe the incredibly foolish ideas being floated about to solve the state's massive and growing $15 billion deficit. On my 18th birthday in prison, the death penalty proposition definitely takes the cake.

No one has been executed in Illinois since former Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium, and thereafter emptied out the state's death row. If no one is being executed, why not abolish capital punishment? The decision made by the former governor was not made to save the state a few bucks, or because of his opposition to the death penalty. It was made because the Illinois justice system is broken. Numerous men who were on death row during George Ryan's time in office were exonerated, even one man just minutes before his execution. The Governor could not in good conscience continue to authorize executions with a probability an innocent man could go to his death. He reasoned logically that if all those men were innocent, there were others on death row who were innocent as well. Unfortunately, he never considered those with even less legal protections and scrutiny rotting away in the prisons of Illinois who were innocent, and thought erroneously these people would eventually be cleared, or at least have the opportunity to be exonerated.

Since the moratorium on the death penalty, the legislature has tinkered around with the law to add greater protections to those accused who face capital punishment. Defense lawyers now must be certified by the state to serve as counsel in cases where the prosecutor is seeking death. This is to make sure trial and appellate lawyers have enough experience and are competent and qualified. Many people on death row who were exonerated were represented by incompetent and inexperienced attorneys. My trial attorney, for example, could never have represented me under the new rules. He was predominately a civil attorney for Jenner & Block, and had only participated in a couple of murder trials before taking my case.

Death penalty appeals have always faced greater scrutiny, and go directly to the State Supreme Court. When a person is on death row, he or she has more opportunity to appeal, and appellate issues are taken more seriously and not dismissed for technicalities. My post conviction appeal was thrown out of court because my lawyer failed to attach affidavits, an error fatal for those with natural life, but not if the defendant is facing death. My federal appeal was thrown out as well, because my attorney filed it one day late. I appealed the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but they upheld the lower court's ruling. Certain errors considered not grave enough to warrant a new trial for those with natural life or a set number of years, such as the prosecutor lying about the law of accountability or the evidence, are cause for remand in death penalty cases as well.

Even in 1995, before the moratorium and new protections for death penalty defendants, I knew I would have stood a better chance on appeal on death row than I did in general population. In fact, I told my attorneys not to argue against the death penalty. I was not going to mitigate actions or inactions. I did not want to languish in prison for many years or indefinitely either. However, most importantly, I wanted a new trial, and this was more probable from death row. My trial attorneys, though, refused to not defend me against capital punishment, and said it was their duty to make a defense. I do not know why they thought they had a duty to defend me against being executed, but not to defend me at trial.

People may think the death penalty is inhumane, cruel, or morally wrong. However, until they have spent 18 years in maximum-security institutions and look into the abyss of spending all of their life in misery, they should remain silent. I have lived nearly two decades in Illinois' worst, most violent, and oppressive prisons. I have suffered incredible anguish all my adult life and my existence is made more wretched and meaningless every year that passes. Banished to the island of Alba, even Napoleon Bonaparte would say, "Death is nothing, but to live in defeat is to die every day." Napoleon lived a lavish lifestyle and had considerable freedom after his arrest, and he knew nothing of the deprivation, suffering, or oppression I experience on a daily basis, but I agree with his sentiments. I would rather be crucified than to live out the rest of my life at Stateville or other maximum-security prisons in Illinois.

Illinois' legislatures are not considering ending the death penalty because of any belief of the cruelty of the sentence, nor are they thinking about it because of any concern over executing an innocent man. They are doing so because trying defendants where the state seeks the death penalty costs more money. The state must actually provide defendants with well qualified and competent counsel. After conviction, death row inmates continue to get better and pricier defense attorneys. Trials and appeals must go through a more extensive and rigorous process, all of which costs more. In many instances, I have heard of prosecutors conceding the death penalty just to avoid costs or to increase their odds of gaining a conviction in cases with little evidence. This has been especially true since the new rules and law passed. The legislature is not only immoral in their thinking, but penny wise and dollar foolish. I notice this more and more as they attempt to deal with a runaway budget deficit.

Ending the death penalty for the alternative of natural life or other extreme sentences will not save the state money, but will actually increase it in the long term. All of these people that must serve 50 to 100 years, or have no out date at all, must be fed, clothed and housed. Even though the IDOC feeds us merely to meet federal guidelines and we are served food not much better than livestock feed, over a period of half a century these costs add up. We are given merely underclothes and state-issued blues that are made by female inmates in Dwight Correctional Center, who are paid less than the wages in slums in countries with the lowest standard of living. However, the materials cost money, and so do numerous costs of housing inmates. Inmates with natural life are never eligible for a medium transfer and the costs of security at these maximum-security prisons are much higher. The cost per inmate at Stateville is close to $50,000 a year, and this does not include union maintenance workers, renovations, repairs, equipment, etc. Most importantly, it does not include medical costs. As prisoners become old, they need more and more medical care.

The State of Pennsylvania did an extensive review of their prison costs, present and projected. They found that the medical costs of housing elderly prisoners was so high it could eventually bankrupt the state if sentencing laws were kept the same. A house committee advised the legislature to permit elderly prisoners to be eligible for parole so the state would not be obliged to pay for their exponentially rising medical costs.

Illinois has roughly 50,000 prisoners, and with new harsh sentencing laws, many of these people will never be released. The costs of incarcerating 50,000 and growing numbers of prisoners far exceeds the amount of savings from repealing the death penalty. It is almost laughable, if I were not one of thousands who will rot the rest of their existence away in maximum-security prisons, that the legislature thinks they can save money in this fashion.

If the state legislature did not think short term or in political boxes, and truly wanted to cut the costs of IDOC, they would reform sentencing legislation across the board, and make sure the people prosecutors convicted were truly guilty. The courts in Illinois give out natural life sentences, or the equivalent, like candy on Halloween. These sentencing laws are excessive and are not effective at deterring crime. There is no purpose in sentences that exceed over 20 years. If a convict is unable to learn a lesson after two decades, or if his or her crime is so terrible, they should be executed.

Europe does not believe in capital punishment, but they do not have the ridiculous sentencing laws the U.S. has. The U.S. stands alone in 40, 60, and 100 year sentences, or natural life without parole. In Spain, the maximum sentence is 20 years, except for terrorists who can be given life, although their life sentences allow for parole. Throughout Scandinavia, the maximum sentence is about 15 years. Finland has a maximum 12 year sentence, and first offenders cannot be given more than 6 years, regardless of the crime. The only exceptions to these maximum terms of years is if the convict is believed to be criminally insane, or a sociopath. In those cases, they can be held indefinitely or until they are cured. Governor Quinn speaks about the importance of funding education. Many European countries fund their education programs lavishly, up through college. They choose to invest in their futures and their youth, instead of in a prison industrial complex.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a bill to greatly expand gambling in the state to raise revenue. If the bill is signed by the Governor, casinos will be built in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, and other places. There will also be six new racetracks built. It is estimated all of the tax revenue will eventually bring in almost an additional billion dollars. The idea of permitting more race tracks and casinos is not going to encourage fiscal responsibility in the state. Illinois must learn to live within its means, not to continue to increase taxes, sell assets, and create Las Vegas.

More taxes will not encourage businesses to move to Illinois, and revenues ultimately will fall as they move out of state. Less business means fewer jobs, and even less revenue for the state. Selling the state's assets for quick revenue is foolish also in the long term. And gambling...well, already revenue from current casinos and racetracks is declining. With ever more competition and a poor economy, I doubt the expected billions of extra revenue will ever materialize. I do expect corruption and social dislocation to occur, however. I also expect these casinos and race tracks not to be built for years, possibly over a decade, especially with all the government regulations, red tape, and public debate. Illinois' budget deficit is $15 billion now, and Illinois has the worst credit rating in America. Serving that debt is going to add to it quickly and reduce important government projects and funding. The state must immediately address its economic problems with across the board cuts like Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady spiritedly spoke about, or the new Cook County Board President Preckwinkle has proposed.

Today, Chicago Police Officer Michael Fliss was buried. He was killed along with retired CHA Officer Steven Peters by a recent parole, Tim Herring. Apparently, the killer had been released after only serving half of his sentence for a gun offense. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and Chicago Police Captain Jody Weis condemned the murders, and the policy of convicts only serving half of their sentences.

Since 2000 and the passing of the Truth in Sentencing Law, all homicide convicts must serve 100% of their time, and all violent offenders 85%. Only nonviolent offenses are eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. The former sentencing laws were already harsh. Numerous people I knew in prison were sentenced in the 1990s, and they will die in prison, or possibly only get out when they are very old men. These people committed serious crimes, but many of them I doubt would ever commit another. It is a tragedy this crime occurred, but it is not reasonable to assume that had we had more harsh sentencing laws that society would be a better place. What about all the parolees who got out and never committed another crime? What about the men who are released who become industrious, productive and positive influences? You do not hear about these people because they do not make the news. However, I am willing to wager there are a lot more people who are paroled and do not commit other crimes than there are those who commit double homicides.

One thing I agree with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on, however, is that this offender most likely deserves the death penalty. We do not need to repeal capital punishment, contrarily, it needs to be used more often. The justice system needs to be repaired, and protections for those facing death sentences need to be adopted for all class X felonies. How many prisoners continue to do time well beyond what is just? How many continue to rot in the massive prison industrial complex who are no longer a threat to society, or would never commit another crime? How many innocent people continue to languish in prisons because of a broken justice system which the legislature and courts still refuse to rectify? How many innocent men have miraculously finally been exonerated and have sued the state for millions?

Possibly, the state would save more money not incarcerating people needlessly. Possibly, the state would save more money making sure that those in prison are truly guilty. Possibly, the legislature should consider fixing the justice system and repealing excessive sentences instead of repealing the death penalty.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you on everything you wrote! Your closing paragraph sums it up--legislators need to do more research and rethink this subject before voting.

    I would have encouraged readers to contact their elected representatives, perhaps even sending them your post! (Great coverage, by the way.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. "More than likely, I will remain in maximum-security prisons until my death." Nope. Paul, answer my e-mail. There is a way for you to get your story on governor's desk before 2095 :)

    ReplyDelete

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