A COUPLE OF years ago, I met Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who was put to death last week. He was a smart and affable man. He was also very likely responsible for the murders for which he was convicted.
In my years in government, having served as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, I often worked with the Board of Pardons, and met several inmates on death row. Some of them were seemingly warm people who may have been guilty of murder; others were cold and could very well have been innocent. I could never be completely sure though, no matter how closely I read their cases or talked to them.
One day, I hope to be a mother, and devote my life to my children. If my child were gunned down in the same way Tookie Williams' victims allegedly were, the murderer would be a dead man himself, by my own hands. Of course, I would go to prison for life, but that would be a small price to avenge my dead child.
In that moment, I would be rejecting all the moral lessons I had been taught about the value of every human life. That is the precise reason we don't allow victims to determine the punishment of the perpetrator. It is also the reason no government should make decisions of life and death when there is an iota of doubt.
Because of the sliver of doubt that always exists about the certainty of guilt of those on death row, ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, declared a moratorium on executions in his state in the year 2000. Ryan was troubled by a report in the <i>Chicago Tribune</i> that examined almost 300 death penalty cases. It found that 33 people on Illinois' death row were represented by lawyers who had been disbarred or suspended and that nearly 50 other inmates had been convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants, often regarded as flimsy evidence.
Illinois is not the only state with a questionable execution record. Indeed, while governor of Texas, George W. Bush refused to grant stays of execution to a man who was represented by a lawyer who constantly fell asleep at trial, as well as to a number of mentally retarded defendants. Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, refused to grant clemency to a mentally handicapped man who shot out part of his brain at the time of his arrest.
None of these people were fully able to grasp what they were being tried for, let alone capable of assisting in their defense. In fact, according to mental-health experts, there is a danger that the mentally retarded will admit to a crime because of their desire to please.
Even if we were 100 percent sure that every single person executed was guilty, the death penalty would still be wrong because the only reasons for execution would be revenge and the belief that the guilty party was beyond redemption.
Personally, as a Catholic, I have been taught that seeking revenge against sinners is a paved road straight to hell. But leaving beside religious beliefs, our own government has put these moral values into our law for good practical reasons.
For example, if someone is fired from his job for reasons he believes unjust, it doesn't give him the right to steal from the company. When slavery was outlawed, it didn't give the right to ex-slaves to capture their former owners and force them into servitude. To allow for acts of retribution in the law would lead to mass chaos.
Likewise, the belief that a life can be redeemed, while a part of my church's doctrine, is not exclusive to it. Indeed, all the great leaders of our time who were victims of the most heinous crimes believed that the hope for redemption lives within all of us. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela are just a few.
Virtually all civilized nations have adopted this principle of redemption in their law, especially in Europe, which had seen the institutionalized nihilism of Nazi Germany. The U.S. ought not do things just because Europe and the rest of the world does. But on issues of morals, human rights and human dignity, the U.S. ought to lead the world. It is time for people to demand that the U.S., a beacon of hope and freedom, reclaim its place as the world's leader in establishing real moral values in the way it operates. There would be no better way to set ourselves down that path than ending execution.