Northern Valley Beacon

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Thursday, December 15, 2005


Killing killers and other mythologies

The newspaper I worked for got into trouble with a number of readers when the feature editor went to the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet and interviewed men convicted of burglary about how their victims unwittingly helped them commit their crimes. The stories were interesting reading because they detailed just how the crimes were committed and the ways people made it easy for the burglars. Some readers were incensed because the stories told exactly how one goes about setting up and committing a burglary. The outraged readers thought they were textbooks for burglary.

In order to redeem the paper, the editor decided that some of we editors should interview other convicts and emphasize information that would discourage the impressionable from even thinking about committing a crime. I was one of the editors selected to do some interviews, and I drew a man who was a chronic substance abuser and, after a number of thefts, had been convicted with a life sentence as a habitual offender. He had become a chaplain's assistant and was in charge of the chapel. In addition, he had become a monk and ministered to his fellow prisoners in any way he could.

He was a thoughtful but laconic man. When he did speak, he spoke in parables. One question I asked him was who were the most dangerous people in prison. His reply was immediate: "The innocent ones," he said. He explained that unless they are men of unusual forgiveness, they can never forget that acts of injustice put them in prison. If they get out of prison, they tend to think they owe nothing but revenge to the society that put them there. "They frighten me," he said, "because you have no idea of what damage has been done to them and what actions they have been dreaming of committing when they get out."

At the time of the interview, I assumed that very few people were wrongly convicted and sentenced to prison or death. Three decades after that interview, the very prison where it was conducted released 13 men from death row because they had been wrongfully convicted.

In the past week, two executions made the news. Tookie Williams was killed in California for murders he was convicted of committing. John B. Williams, Sr., 77, was killed in Mississippi for a paid killing for which he was convicted. Both men protested their innocence to their deaths.

Their protests do not necessarily indicate innocence. But they raise questions about the death penalty. Their guilt is uncertain; their deaths are not.

Executions may give the families of crime victims a sense of vengeance, but they do little to actually repair the damage and demoralization caused by the crimes. They certainly aggravate those instances where guilt is called into question.

And according to the convict-monk, you can do worse things to people than kill them. He remarked that prison probably created more diehard criminals than it cures. Our theory of criminal justice does not work. It does not deter crime or make repairs for the ones committed. It merely feeds on itself and drags society down to its level.

It is not just the death penalty that needs to be put under rigorous examination.

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