June 29, 1972 was the date on which the U.S. Supreme Court issued its first attempt to wrestle the death penalty to the ground in Furman v. Georgia. Of course it didn’t succeed but each of the nine justices wrote an opinion, trying to make sense of an awful reality.

The outcome was a brief period when there was no death penalty in the U.S. But then in 1976, the court restored capital punishment in its Greg v. Georgia decision. That was the birthday of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty (ICADP), co-founded right here in Oak Park by Mary Alice Rankin. Little did she know that it would take another 35 years for her dream to come true. Illinois finally abolished the death penalty in 2011.

Why did it take so long? It wasn’t for lack of trying. ICADP was active in Springfield over many years with bills that never got heard, then got heard but never left the committee, then finally got on the floor but failed to go to a vote.

At last the full meaning of the death penalty began to come into view: arbitrary, capricious, expensive, non-deterrent, but most of all, no guarantees that it wouldn’t condemn innocent people.

On June 26, the 36 years of blood, sweat and tears of ICADP, documented in its records, will be dedicated at the University of Illinois at Chicago Library. There is a story — perhaps many stories — buried in those files that awaits rebirth by some scholar who has the patience to unravel it. But the reality is there already, a system free to convict the murderer without the doubts and expense that accompany capital punishment.

Chicago is fortunate to have two other rich sources on the death penalty for those who want to study it: Sr. Helen Prejean’s archive at DePaul University Library and those of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School.

Yes, Mary Alice Rankin would be glad to know that the work of ICADP has ended the death penalty in Illinois and that the testimony to all that hard work is available for deeper study.

But wait! Lest we grow too satisfied, ICADP is still active in helping capital punishment stay abolished and to help that next state (five and counting) to make the move.

Patrick McAnany
Oak Park

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