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Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in Illinois

August 20, 2019

August 19, 2019

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

RIP capital punishment

In the aftermath of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, an Illinois House member has called for the Legislature to pass and the governor to sign a bill that would reinstate the death penalty.

The death penalty was repealed in 2011. But well before then, Illinois governors, starting with George Ryan, barred capital punishment from being imposed on state prison inmates who were sentenced to death.

It’s easy to understand the visceral reaction by state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, to the mass shootings. In a just world, there would be a law that metes out proportionate punishment to those who perpetrate these horrendous acts of mindless violence.

Alas, even the death penalty is not sufficient punishment, because there is no adequate punishment for killing on the scale seen in Texas and Ohio.

Those who think death is appropriate in these kinds of incidents can take some comfort in the reality that most mass shooters are suicidal and do not survive their participation in these outrages.

So what McSweeney is really talking about is restoring capital punishment as an option for the worst of the worst kinds of murder cases.

The idea, in theory, has its appeal. After all, does anyone miss mass murderer John Wayne Gacy? He was sentenced to death and actually executed for his 30-plus murders of young men and boys.

But the fact is that Illinois’ death penalty law, mostly, was a failure.

For starters, dozens of people were sentenced to death but never executed. Illinois’ death penalty was, mostly, on paper because residents of death row filed appeal after appeal, decade after decade.

The real problem, however, was that too many defendants were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. These wrongful convictions were the result of a variety of factors, including shoddy, even dishonest, police work and low-quality legal representation for the accused.

Whatever the reasons, it’s intolerable when a system of justice becomes a vehicle for the ultimate injustice.

Proponents like McSweeney insist that safeguards could be built into the death penalty trial system that would eliminate the possibility of error, something like the guidelines in place in federal death penalty litigation.

That sounds good and, even though unlikely, may even be possible.

But the death penalty proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

What’s more, the alternative to a death sentence is life in prison. For those who want to see the worst of the worst severely punished, a natural life sentence fills the bill.

Merits of the issue aside, the politics of the issue make this proposal a near impossibility.

Liberal Democrats run the state, and liberal Democrats want to see more people released from state prisons, not people sentenced to death there.

Ideologically, this proposal is a nonstarter for Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the super-majority Democrats who run the House and Senate and even Republicans who would rather spend their time pursuing more important and practical issues.

McSweeney has a point about crime and punishment, one that may earn him some fans. But Illinois’ death penalty has come and gone, and that’s not going to change in the current political and social climate.

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August 17, 2019

(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald

Drop the murder charges in Old Mill Creek case

Until all the evidence is in, it’s difficult to know precisely what happened in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, during an alleged car burglary in Lake County that led to the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old apparent accomplice.

Authorities say six teenagers, who arrived in a car stolen earlier in the week, were involved in the burglary a little after 1 a.m. outside a remote house in unincorporated Old Mill Creek. One of them, 14-year-old Jaquan Swopes, was killed when the owner of the house opened fire with a registered handgun after, he told police, one of the teens approached the house carrying an object in his hand.

The homeowner was not charged. We do not have enough detail about the level of the threat he might have felt to question that or to suggest that he should have been. But Swopes’ five alleged accomplices have been charged with murder as a result of his death.

That seems far-fetched.

The charges are allowed by Illinois law that says those engaged in a serious crime are liable for a death that may occur from the commission of that crime.

There is some logic to that provision if, say, one of a ring of burglars kills a burglary victim. But in this case, it presumably was one of the accomplices who was killed, and none of his accomplices pulled the trigger or apparently were even carrying a gun with a trigger to pull.

In filing the charges, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim said the other five teens “were solely responsible for placing the now-deceased 14-year-old in danger.” But that’s not true. We would argue that unless coercion can be shown, the 14-year-old put himself in danger.

The reality is these are not credible charges. We suspect that they have been filed primarily as leverage for plea bargains.

In no way do we mean to defend the five suspects against any real crimes they may have committed. Details of what happened are not as yet clear. Nor is any prior criminal history of those who are accused. Common sense suggests that something untoward was taking place, given the hour, the stolen car and the high-speed chase that led to their apprehensions.

But criminal justice must be just that: Justice. And for it to be justice, the charge must fit the crime.

The death of a 14-year-old is a tragedy, no matter the circumstances.

So are unduly harsh charges that could lead to unreasonably hard sentences that have the power to put these teens beyond redemption or rehabilitation.

Respectfully, we encourage State’s Attorney Nerheim to reconsider the charges and to file some that are more appropriate.

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August 17, 2019

(Decatur) Herald & Review

Trump toying with Blagojevich

Rod Blagojevich has spent seven years in jail for crimes of his own making; he’s due to spend another seven, unless President Trump commutes his sentence.

He’s acclimated to jail now, set in the serene hills of middle Colorado, where the sky is blue and picturesque mountaintops remain covered in snow. The cellmates - neighbors, really - in the country club prison he lives watch TV, exercise, occasionally banter with golfers on a nearby course or sneak to town for a pack of smokes.

They lift weights and exercise and jog aimlessly on an outdoor track, where a white-haired Blago spent some hours last week as a Chicago Tribune photographer snapped pictures. The good life, except, of course, without Patti and the girls.

So we shed only crocodile tears for the Gov, who must be impatiently waiting in his gilded cage for Trump to sign the paperwork that would let him free.

It’s clear, of course, Trump spoke without all the facts on Blago’s case. Two congressmen called the president to explain the intricacies of the case: how Blagojevich shook down a children’s hospital for a donation, how he tried to sell the Senate seat that belonged to Barack Obama, how he and Patti let loose with blue invective against those who didn’t see the governor’s office as they did, a road paved with gold.

Blago followed in the shackled footsteps of other Illinois governors: of George Ryan, of Dan Walker, of Otto Kerner Jr.; and of congressmen Dan Rostenkowski, Dennis Hastert, Mel Reynolds and Jesse Jackson Jr., so it’s not terribly surprising that he used the job for personal gain. Nor is it surprising that he sought public support by joining the cast of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” and that Patti did the same with “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here,” as well as appearances on Fox News to draw the eye of the president, a Fox fan.

It’s just who they are.

Even so, the president has toyed with them more than once, dangling the idea of a commuted sentence, as he trivializes Blago’s crimes and deflects attention from himself by drawing the media’s eyes toward the disgraced governor. As president, Trump has the ability to commute sentences and issue pardons. Generally those decisions are made with much study and thoughtfulness, not just about the person convicted of the crime but about the victims of that crime.

Blagojevich’s victims were the citizens of Illinois, who cannot be made whole even if the governor serves his entire 14-year term.

Trump now is slow-walking his initial thoughts of commutation. It’s unclear whether he’s rethinking his position or pointing his tweets at another pawn.

Sort of like a cat tired of playing with a mouse.

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