The details of the Commission on the Death Penalty called by Governor George Ryan of Illinois in 2000 can be read in Scott Turow’s book, “Ultimate Punishment” [my review is at https://ethicalstl.org/blogs/review/reviewreviewreviewultimate-punishment-a-lawyers-reflections-on-dealing-with-the-death-penalty-2003/ ]. This is the human face on that story.
We start with a group of journalism students who decided to investigate the facts in the case of a convicted murderer on death row. They discovered that there were a great many things wrong with his trial, and that in fact another man eventually confessed to the crime. When he was released, the governor felt it was necessary to review all the cases on death row, not only to see if others were innocent, but whether some might be guilty but not deserving of a death penalty.
The film also reviews death cases in several other states, and specifically where certain practices show a decided bias against the poor and minorities. Among the people interviewed are a great many prisoners who were exonerated and those whose sentences were commuted. There are activists both for and against the death penalty. One of the most moving is a group of families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. Some families demand vengeance, but others show compassion for the fact that the murderer is generally a victim, too.
Scott Turow appears several times in the film, which gives it a palpable link to his excellent book. Governor Ryan also appears, as do several prosecutors and defense attorneys. Prominent among the death penalty opponents is a former warden in a prison who relates how his experiences carrying out the death penalty several times changed his point of view.
The death penalty is one of the major ethical issues of our day, and deserves careful consideration. I have come to agree with Scott Turow on this, in that we simply cannot craft a death penalty which can be guaranteed to be applied justly and correctly every time. The risk of getting it wrong is just too high to be acceptable.
Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.