Don’t Let ’em Dangle (or Fry, or Die by Injection)

Whatever you believe about Roland Burris (which might be very little if you don’t give a hoot about politics and/or do not live in  Illinois), I just found another reason not to like him: his stance on the death penalty.

We all have to go sometime, and Burris is prepared. But the state doesn't have to kill in your and my name.

We all have to go sometime, and Burris is prepared. But the state doesn't have to kill in your and my name.

Somehow I have gone these months at C?WC? and not addressed one of the issues close to my heart. I know I am in the minority, since about 65 percent of Americans support capital punishment. At least that number has been falling, thanks to such things as DNA evidence exonerating people on Death Row and the growing sense in some circles that capital punishment unfairly targets the poor and  minorities. (Interestingly, the number of pro-death penalty folks peaked during the peace-and-prosperity Clinton years. My theory why: the law-and-order conservative mantra of the preceding two decades had reached its peak, and then the scientific evidence showing we were about to kill innocent people began to take hold , and it has gathered steam since.)

(Another in a never-ending stream of personal recollection amidst chronicling the Crisis: I saw the efficacy of the pro-capital punishment forces first hand in 1988, when I was a grad assistant at Emerson and teaching freshman comp – my one and only time in the classroom, much to the pleasure of me and students everywhere. I wanted the students to write about a current issue, and I brought up the death penalty. Not one of them opposed it. So much for idealistic and liberal youth. Maybe because Emerson was a not-cheap private school and so they came from wealthier, more conservative families? Maybe the one or two who did oppose it did not want to be about of step with their peers? Maybe because they were just apathetic little shits?  Don’t know. But I never felt more separated from public opinion or the “average American” than in that moment.)

Iran, Saudi Arabia, China...

No, let's be like those paragons of democracy: Iran, Saudi Arabia, China...

So, today’s Tribune shows that Roland Burris has not joined the rising tide of Americans who oppose the death penalty. In an interview, he said that as Illinois attorney general he had a constitutional duty to follow the state law on the death penalty. Fair enough. (This was, of course in the days before the last felonious Illinois governor, George Ryan, said the capital punishment system in the state had become overwhelmingly flawed and he released everyone on Death Row. I was not here at the time, but it seems likely this was at least partly [totally?] a ploy to divert attention from his legal troubles and show what a humanitarian he was. Just like Blago surrounded himself with children and black ministers whenever he felt the heat turning up a wee bit.)

When pressed, though, Burris said if “the person’s crime merited the death penalty, I would support it.” As he completely misses the point that some Americans (and more than 130 nations) believe no crime merits the death penalty. I don’t know if this is personal conviction on his part, or a sense that despite Ryan’s actions, most Illinoisans still want to fry the guilty.

Then an op-ed piece in the paper brought up another angle on Burris and capital punishment. Mary Brigid Hayes worked for Burris in the Illinois AG office. She found evidence that a guy on death row for murder did not get a fair trial. Among other things, the judge would not let jurors hear that another criminal confessed to the crime, saying he acted alone. Hayes could not get Burris to respond to her memos. In one, she pointed out that “as criminal prosecutors, we had an ethical duty to be frank with the court.” That must have stirred some action, right?

Nope. Burris did nothing, and Hayes resigned. The convict eventually did get a new trial and was found innocent. Hayes’s conclusion, in my words: Burris was more concerned about not rocking the boat than doing the right thing. Because if you question one judge, one wrongful conviction, you might have to do it again, and who knows what powerful people you might upset – always a consideration for a guy on the make in Chicago/Illinois politics.

I’d hinted before that some of the first local  reports I read about Burris were not glowing. But the willingness to let an innocent man die because you don’t want to cause a fuss or ruin your career – pathetic and immoral. Burris will get his coveted seat, I’m afraid, and another spineless, self-serving pol will have found his way into Congress. Yeah, he won’t be the last, I know.

For more info on the death penalty and working for its abolition, check out these sites:

Death Penalty Information Center

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

The Innocence Project


~ by mburgan on January 11, 2009.

2 Responses to “Don’t Let ’em Dangle (or Fry, or Die by Injection)”

  1. Please join others who oppose the appointment of Roland Burris for this very reason. Take action at

  2. I will do that. Thanks for reading and leaving the link.

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