Leonard Pitts Jr

Jan17, 2003: Logic tells us: No death penalty

Forgive me, but I'm about to speak heresy.

Blame the outgoing governor of Illinois, who last week emptied his state's Death Row. George Ryancommuted to life in prison the death sentences of 167 condemned criminals. The result: a firestorm of criticism, much of it from those who have lost loved ones to violentcrime. Our instinct is to give great weight to what those people have to say. To listen with greatreverence.

But - and here's the heresy - it occurs to me that maybe we've already listened with too muchreverence.

I bow to no one in my empathy for people whose lives have been affected by violent crime. Yousee, I live with one. My wife's brother Ted was killed in a random shooting 10 years ago.

I still remember her saying, "What? What?" over and over again into the receiver when we got thatawful 3 a.m. phone call. It was as if words had suddenly ceased to have meaning.

I have stood with her at his grave. I have awakened in middle night to find her wide awake. Ihave held her helplessly as she wept.

So I know a little something about this. And one of the things I know is that there's nothing Iwould not have done to spare her that pain. Or to get justice for her.

That's the problem. Because we all feel that way, don't we? We all empathize, we all suffer withthem, we all feel there's nothing we would not or should not do for people whose grief is soimmense. And if they want, if they need, to see a killer killed, so be it.

In the face of their demands on our collective conscience, it can seem insensitive or evenuncaring to voice doubt about that process. Yet, if you are intellectually honest about it, how canyou not?

The answer is simple: Avoid intellectual honesty at all costs.

Consider the recent study indicating that the state of Maryland has been choosing whom to executebased on color of skin and place of residence.

You'd think that would give a fair man pause. Yet incoming Gov. Robert Ehrlich has shrugged itoff, keeping an ill-advised campaign promise to lift a death penalty moratorium imposed by hispredecessor.

The difference between George Ryan and the Robert Ehrlichs of the world is this: Somehow, Ryanreached a point where conscience would no longer allow him to ignore what he saw.

Three years ago, Ryan, a former death penalty supporter, suspended state executions. He was stungby the fact that since 1977, 13 people had been freed from the Illinois death house after they werefound to have been wrongly convicted.

Now the other shoe drops. "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Ryan said lastweek.

Surely that makes sense. If you owned a machine - a car, a computer, a microwave oven - that wasas prone to failure as capital punishment, you would have ditched it a long time ago. Yet we insistthat this broken hunk of junk can somehow be made to function properly if we are just persistent andingenious enough. And never mind all the people who are freed from Death Row because a cop lied, awitness erred, a lawyer bungled, the system failed.

Killing killers illustrates our respect for the sanctity of life, death penalty advocates arguewith oily, Orwellian rhetoric. And you look at this poor slob who just spent 20 years under sentenceof death for something he didn't do and you wonder, what about his life? Doesn't it have sanctity,too?

By any logical standard, life without parole should be the highest punishment in our legalarsenal. It's less expensive than the death penalty and it is reversible in the event of error.

So where's the logic in state-sanctioned executions? There isn't any. There's only the blindingemotion that says if we don't kill killers, we betray the victims. We show ourselves to be soft.

And how silly is that? By sentencing 167 people to the slow death of the five-by-12 cell, GeorgeRyan did not save killers from justice.

But he just may have saved us from ourselves.