The road to abolition

By: Alice Kim

When former Gov. George Ryan announced his decision to commute all death sentences in Illinois and pardon four Illinois death row prisoners, he effectively shut down Illinois’ death row. But more than that, his decision re-ignited the debate over the future of the death penalty in Illinois and across the nation.

Without question, Ryan’s decision is a tremendous victory for the abolitionist movement. Within days of his announcement, Illinois House Rep. Art Turner, backed by some of the state’s top legislators, reintroduced abolition legislation.

On top of that, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) held a press conference calling for further investigation of former Chicago Police Commander John Burge and his detectives at Area 2 and 3 headquarters on the South Side of Chicago, the police officers responsible for brutally torturing the four Illinois death row prisoners pardoned by Ryan.

The cases of the Death Row 10 show all too clearly what is wrong with the death penalty. These men, all African Americans, were brutally tortured by Chicago police and forced into giving confessions that were used to convict and sentence them to death. Winning justice for the Death Row 10 who remain behind bars will remain central to our fight for abolition.

The impact of Ryan’s decisions has gone far beyond Illinois. Expressing his support for Ryan’s decisions, U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) reintroduced legislation for a national moratorium on executions. And legislators have re-introduced moratorium legislation in Indiana and North Carolina. Moreover, Mexico is challenging before the World Court the executions of more than 50 Mexican citizens on death row in the U.S.

It will be up to activists to keep up the pressure and drive through abolition legislation in Illinois. Local abolitionists understand that the fight for abolition legislation must be at the forefront of our struggle. There are at least 60 potential capital cases in the pipeline. Without a fight, Illinois’ death row will once again fill up with minorities and the poor.

We know that the problems that characterize the Illinois death penalty system are hardly unique. Across the country, death rows are plagued with racism, class bias and gross misconduct by the police, prosecutors and judges.

The road to abolition will not be easy. Here in Illinois, Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine condemned Ryan’s decision. He immediately challenged the blanket commutations by asking the Illinois Supreme Court to void the commutations for 10 former death row inmates who had previously won re-sentencing hearings.

Newly elected Gov. Rod Blagojevich--a Democrat--has called the blanket commutations a "gross injustice."

But we have justice on our side. In recent years, the death penalty system has been exposed as flawed and racist. The public is becoming increasingly aware of the systematic problems rooted in our so-called criminal justice system.

Soon after Ryan emptied Illinois’ death row, the 107th innocent man, Rudolph Hutton, was released from Florida’s death row. How many other innocent men or women remain behind bars or on death row? As Ryan said when he announced the commutations, "Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error."

Ryan’s decision was not made in a vacuum. The case against the death penalty was put before him by the relentless efforts of activists, family members, attorneys, journalists, students and death row prisoners themselves.

It was a small but incredibly active and spirited abolitionist movement that made the case for blanket commutations. Similarly, the cases of the Death Row 10 garnered public attention because activists organized a grassroots campaign highlighting the glaring injustices in their cases.

The future of the death penalty in America will depend on the actions of ordinary people dedicated to abolishing the barbaric practice of capital punishment once and for all.