I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a good Catholic. Or, really, a Catholic at all. But I was raised that way (Catholic) and I did all the things you’re supposed to do growing up in the Church: went to mass regularly, made my First Communion, took CCD classes, was confirmed, all of that; and my family had and has nuns and priests in it, so I guess I kind of identify, in a cultural if not a religious way, with being Catholic.
But, really, the last remaining vestiges of what passes for my own version of Catholicism, as opposed to being Catholic, is this: I am inalterably opposed to the death penalty, and I have been for as long as I can remember. If there was one Article of Faith in my house growing up, it was that the death penalty is always wrong, in every situation, without exception. And, man, did that one stick.
Being anti-death penalty is one of the things that drew me to the great Steve Earle, who, aside from being one of the finest American songwriters, is a life-long abolitionist. His first anti-death penalty song, “Billy Austin,” the video for which is at the top of this post, really sums it up:
Now my waiting’s over
As the final hour drags by
I ain’t about to tell you
That I don’t deserve to die
But there’s twenty-seven men here
Mostly black, brown and poor
Most of ’em are guilty
Who are you to say for sure?
So when the preacher comes to get me
And they shave off all my hair
Could you take that long walk with me
Knowing hell is waitin’ there
Could you pull that switch yourself sir
With a sure and steady hand
Could you still tell yourself
That you’re better than I am
That’s the unanswerable question, isn’t it. It’s not whether anybody deserves to die for the crimes they committed; it’s whether any of us ought to wield that power. And the answer for me’s always been an immediate and resounding No.
But all my life I figured that this is one issue where I’d always be in the minority, always be in the opposition, and that’s just the way it was. I always figured I’d spend my life arguing against the death penalty, always losing, but hopefully adding just one more voice to the opposition, so that one day, most likely long after I was gone, the right view would prevail. In fact, when I came out of law school I went to work for the Chicago firm of Jenner & Block largely because it had such an outstanding reputation for doing pro bono work, including handling death penalty appeals and advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. I was lucky enough, as a summer associate in 1986, to be asked to do some legal research on a death penalty case involving a gentleman named Stanley Boclair who had been convicted of murder by a Livingston County, Illinois, jury and was awaiting sentencing by the Circuit Court. I even got to go, along with a couple of other summer associates, down to the Livingston County Courthouse in Pontiac, Illinois, adjacent to the prison there, to a hearing before the judge who would decide Boclair’s fate. And I was in the office one afternoon when the call came in advising us that the judge, who had never before sentenced anyone to death, ruled that Stanley Boclair had to die for his crimes. Jenner & Block appealed on Mr. Boclair’s behalf and his death sentence was vacated in 1989, but I’ll never forget picking up the phone that summer afternoon, at all of 24 years old and still uninitiated in such things, and finding out that a man whom I’d met and sat next to in a Livingston County Courtroom had been sentenced to die. Not your average summer associate experience.
But anyway, as I say, I assumed then that those of us who opposed the death penalty would spend the rest of our lives tilting at proverbial windmills. Even after Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000 for the purpose of developing needed reforms, I assumed it would be back once the Commission on Capital Punishment finished its review and made its recommendations. As broken as the Illinois death penalty system was, I never imagined Illinois would have the political will to do away with it.
So, I can’t begin to explain how overwhelming this is:
SPRINGFIELD --- A historic measure to abolish the death penalty in Illinois passed the state Senate today after nearly two hours of impassioned debate.
The ban on executions goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who must sign the legislation for it to become law. During last fall's campaign, Quinn said he supports “capital punishment when applied carefully and fairly,” but also backs the 10-year-old moratorium on executions. (See Question 4 here.)
The Senate voted 32-25 to approve the ban, with two members voting present. The measure passed the House last week.
Sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, urged his colleagues to “join the civilized world” and end the death penalty in Illinois.
And so I think we are on the brink of joining the civilized world, as State Sen. Raoul says, because I believe Gov. Quinn will do the right thing and sign this bill into law. It will be a tough decision for him, no doubt; but given this state’s abysmal track record on the death penalty and Gov. Quinn’s common decency, I think he knows what he has to do.
Come on, Gov. Quinn. This is the moment so many of us have been waiting for for so long. Be the change we’re waiting for.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.