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On Trial In Illinois: The Death Penalty

On a chaotic day filled with drama, anger and sorrow, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board today launched an unprecedented and controversial series of back-to-back clemency hearings for most of the state's 159 death row inmates in a system that has been described as so flawed that it risks executing an innocent man.

A half-dozen members of the Pueschel family emotionally pleaded with the board not to recommend clemency for brothers Reginald and Jerry Mahaffey, who were convicted of murdering Dean and Jo Ellen Pueschel in 1983, and leaving their 11-year-old son for dead.

"I am that little boy Ricky. I saw them killing my parents. I saw them," Richard Dean Pueschel told the packed room, his voice cracking with emotion. "Let Governor Ryan know [the Mahaffeys] do not deserve mercy."

I think death penalty opponents' cheering of Gov. Ryan's investigation has distorted the issue. The review of death sentences that he ordered, which is culminating in these hearings, is not about whether it is acceptable to execute criminals. It's about whether Illinois has been executing innocent people by accident. The unreliability of death sentences has been widely used as an argument for abolishing it, which explains why death penalty opponents are so interested in this review. But Gov. Ryan supports the death penalty in principle -- so this review is more about eliminating corruption of the penalty than about working toward abolition.

The quote from Pueschel illustrates the misunderstanding that death penalty opponents' involvement has created (though this misunderstanding tends to crop up whenever someone is put on trial for a horriffic crime, and is presumed guilty by the public). His emotional appeal is not germane to the question that the hearing is concerning itself with. The hearing isn't to decide whether the people who killed Pueschel's parents ought to be executed -- all the laws on the books say that they ought to be. The hearing is to decide whether the Mahaffeys are the killers. Unless Pueschel wants his desire for revenge to outweigh the justice system's interest in identifying the actual guilty party (the crime is so bad that somebody ought to die for it), he should focus on establishing the Mahaffeys' guilt.


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