David Protess
Northwestern University journalism professor

SB3539. No ordinary Springfield legislation, but a bill that would end the death penalty, bringing Illinois into conformity with 15 other states and most civilized countries in the world. Having passed the General Assembly earlier this month, only the stroke of Gov. Pat Quinn’s pen stands in the way of abolition.

During the intense debate over this legislation, my thoughts often turned to Anthony Porter, Dennis Williams, Verneal Jimerson, Aaron Patterson and Randy Steidl. These men collectively spent more than seven decades on death row for crimes they did not commit. Porter came within 50 hours of execution.

Although they were exonerated by new evidence, uncovered by my journalism students and others, many correctly concluded that a justice system that depends on college kids to save lives is fatally flawed.

Signing SB3539 into law would bring solace to the wrongfully convicted by letting them know their years on death row eventually served a useful purpose. And, to support murder victims’ families, the law would establish a fund that otherwise would be used to prosecute costly capital cases.

When former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions a decade ago, 13 men had been exonerated in Illinois. Since the moratorium, seven more condemned prisoners have been freed.

Lawmakers could tinker with the system, reducing the chances of a fatal mistake. But the truth is the death penalty will forever be error-prone because judges and jurors are human and inevitably will make mistakes.

Some politicians have called for a referendum on capital punishment instead of a law abolishing it. We do not live in ancient Rome where a thumbs up or down determined life or death. It is time to take the moral high road and abolish the death penalty. Our state owes nothing less to its condemned innocents — and the memory of victims they did not kill.

David Protess is a professor of Journalism and director of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University. He is an Oak Park resident.

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