Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois just signed a law which abolishes the death penalty in that state. This legislation is to some extent symbolic, in that Illinois has had a moratorium on the death penalty for almost a decade. With this legislation, Illinois joins New Mexico and New Jersey as states that have recently abolished the death penalty.
I have discussed here before my attitude towards the death penalty, especially in regards to specific cases such as the ongoing case of Hank Skinner . I'm not intrinsically against the death penalty: societies have the right in general to execute those who have violated the social contract in particularly heinous fashions if that will assist the public good. However, the death penalty as practiced in the United States is capricious and disorderly. Prosecutors push for death sentences when it is politically convenient, and their are huge racial disparities in who is executed.
It is also clear that innocent people have been wrongly convicted, and that in at least some cases, innocent people have been executed such as Cameron Todd Willinngham. Evidentiary standards that allow junk science and superficially persuasive eyewitness testimony are leaving blood on all our hands. For a long time, I have found striking a certain section in the Biblical book of my namesake, Joshua. the Israelites are called thieves when one man steals at Jericho. How much worse are we as a society that we as a democracy repeatedly elect and reelect officials who kill innocent people in our name?
In the particular case of the state of Illinois, I have additional personal reason to be interested in this legislation. My uncle Seymour Simon was a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court. He was a staunch opponent of the death penalty and argued forcefully and unceasingly that the death penalty as implemented in Illinois was unconsciousable and unconstitutionally capricious. He died in 2006, and so did not live to see this legislation. I suspect I know how he would have responded if he had seen this: Illinois is down. Only thirty-five more states to go.