Editorial: U.S. should follow Illinois, abolish death penalty

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It’s increasingly clear Illinois got it right when it abolished the death penalty in 2011, and any attempts to reinstate capital punishment in the state should be rejected.

The signs that the United States is turning away from executions are all around us. For years, politicians pushed toexpand the death penalty to new categories of crime. Now public support is declining. States continue to abolish it. The number of executions across America is dropping.

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In a thoughtful U.S. Supreme Court dissent last week in Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, offered plenty of evidence that Illinois was wise to turn away from the death penalty. He even questioned whether it’s time for the entire nation to follow suit.

The underlying case was about a drug used in lethal injections. In his dissent, though, Breyer went on to say he doubts capital punishment can be constitutional because it fails several tests: It is too frequently imposed on people who turn out to be innocent; it is handed down arbitrarily; it fails as a deterrent to crime, and the years of solitary confinement on death row are excessively harsh.

Death penalty supporters point to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, arguing only execution is fair punishment for the most evil crimes. Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to ridicule Breyer’s dissent as “gobbledy-gook.”

The real gobbledy-gook is claiming the death penalty is fair when time after time innocent people are condemned to die for crimes they did not commit. In Illinois, men have been carted off to death row not because of something they did but because of police and witness perjury, withheld evidence, false confessions and hoodwinked juries. The Center on Wrongful Convictions lists 26 Illinois men sentenced to death and later exonerated, mostly since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977.

Even two men whom Scalia cited in an earlier opinion as the poster cases for the death penalty turned out to be innocent.

The death penalty suffers from an innocence syndrome. Police and prosecutors pull out all stops when a heinous, sensational crime is committed. Outraged judges and juries are less willing to acquit, even if the evidence is flimsy. Rules often are bent to assure convictions.

The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, but gave states a chance to write new rules to assure capital punishment was fair. More than 40 years later, that effort has fallen short. Attempts to wring imperfections out of the system have driven up costs and the length of time spent on death row. It’s time to heed Breyer’s call and put the death penalty on trial because it violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.

Illinois has fixed its capital punishment problem by getting rid of it. The Supreme Court should follow, and declare the death penalty unconstitutional.

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