Saturday, April 12, 2014

Must we relive death penalty fight?

Illinois does not have a valid capital crimes statute any longer – our state officials abolished the death penalty a few years go after years of evidence indicating how flawed it was.
PORTER: Did he really do it, after all?

But it seems we still have some people determined to fight for the cause of putting people to death so as to satisfy someone else’s need for “vengeance!”

OR AT LEAST that’s the reaction I got in my gut when I read reports earlier this week that said former Cook County state’s attorney Richard Devine prosecuted an innocent man for a crime for which the state had previously sentenced the real “killer” to death.

The only problem is that this particular case is that of Anthony Porter – who for a short stretch was an international figure in the death penalty debate.

Porter served 16 years of his life in the Illinois Department of Corrections under a death sentence – and at one point was just a few hours away from actually facing execution by lethal injection.

But that execution was put on hold, and Porter was eventually released from prison due to clemency from now-former Gov. George Ryan. In fact, it was Porter’s case that supposedly motivated Ryan to think that Illinois’ death penalty system was too flawed to be kept on the books.

IT CAUSED RYAN to impose the moratorium on executions that remained through the time when the General Assembly finally voted to abolish the death penalty AND Gov. Pat Quinn signed that change into Illinois law!

Porter’s evidence of his innocence included the work of students of a now-former Northwestern University professor, who in working with private investigators got another man to say he committed the crime for which Porter was convicted.

And they got him to say it on videotape, which is what made the story so intriguing (and easy) for television to pick up on. Television stations everywhere picked up the story. That caused Devine to decide not to resist fighting to keep Porter in prison, and to go along with a prosecution of the man on videotape.

He ultimately pleaded guilty and received a lengthy prison sentence, for which he still is incarcerated – although the Chicago Sun-Times reported he could be up for parole in 2017.

BUT THE SUN-TIMES’ report focused on the fact that now-retired prosecutor Thomas Epach, Jr., is saying he wonders if the man now in prison is truly innocent, and if Porter really did do the crime for which he has been exonerated for the past 15 years.

I’ll be the first to admit that back when David Protess’ students showed their video confession publicly (I was a reporter-type back then, and I remember the death penalty fiasco in Illinois all too well), my gut reaction was to wonder, “How do we know he’s telling the truth?”

But nobody else seemed to be concerned. That question seemed to get swept aside in the storm over whether Illinois was too sloppy in prosecuting capital offenses that we couldn’t be assured the convictions were legitimate.

Although now, Epach is trying to argue the same point, saying in an affidavit, “It is my opinion that it was highly unusual, if not unprecedented, to make a decision to release an individual convicted of murder, based upon the broadcast of a video, the reliability and authenticity of which had not been thoroughly investigated and established.”

WHICH MIGHT BE a legitimate point if he had forcefully brought it up back then.

Now? It comes across as someone’s last-ditch effort to find a wrench to throw into the gears.

Does anyone think we can somehow undo the abolishment of the death penalty? Particularly since after all these years, it has come down to the ultimate “he said/she said” argument that a prosecutor usually would denounce if it were made against them!

Are we supposed to put an asterisk (*) next to Porter’s name on the list of Illinois Death Row inmates of the 1990s who wound up having to be released from prison alive, rather than in a cheap casket?

THIS IS ONE fight that is best left in the past. Otherwise, we might as well show down the whole criminal justice system – if we come to the conclusion that none of its verdicts can be trusted; regardless of which way they come down.

Let the “law and order” types mull over that concept, for awhile.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Remember the "Ford Heights Four," another set of Death Row inmates who wound up being exonerated for the crimes they were accused of? The Chicago Tribune tells us their lives aren't exactly free of stigma, despite the freedom they have now had for nearly two decades.

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