Pondering Death Row

My Irish cousins think we Americans are a barbaric lot. Why, they ask, are we so wedded to the death penalty? I used to reply with a certain distance. I'd explain that barely 1 percent of U.S. homicides lead to death sentences, and that polls show 70 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, with only 25 percent opposed. "Favor" is an odd word here, because few Americans like the idea of execution. Our support reflects equal measures of reluctance and resolution. We tend not to accept that murderers should escape the fullest consequences of their actions. Our sympathy goes instead to the victims. For especially heinous crimes, our sense of fairness (not vengeance) dictates the severest punishment. Or so I'd say--adding that I didn't always see it this way myself.

Lately, I've once again been thinking about this choice, prompted by events in my home state of Illinois. Last March our Republican governor, George Ryan, said that before he leaves office in January he might commute the sentences of all 157 men and women on death row. He worries that innocent people might be among those who face lethal injection. (Indeed, in recent years 13 men who did time on Illinois's death row have turned out to be wrongfully convicted.) Attorneys for the condemned immediately filed requests for clemency. Ecstatic foes of the death penalty expected that a state board, reviewing virtually every case, would expose the system as brutal and unfair.

What they didn't expect was what they got: anguished retellings of horrific crimes that reminded us why we have the death penalty. One October morning, I slipped into a hearing room to watch a defense attorney argue for James Tenner. I'd never heard of Tenner. I wish that were still true. In 1987, he brandished a shotgun to herd a trucker he disliked, the trucker's wife and two friends into a garage. Earlier, Tenner carefully hung nooses calibrated to the heights of his intended victims. He'd prepared rope cuffs to bind their hands and ankles. He forced one hostage to slip nooses around the necks of the other three, then harangued the four for two hours, shouting at the trucker, "Which one of your friends do you want me to kill first?" He eventually fired point-blank into the wife and one of the friends; their necks snapped in the nooses as they fell. Then he shot the trucker in the face, fled with the fourth hostage and was captured.

Tenner's lawyer didn't dispute these facts. Instead he said Tenner deserves clemency because his murders weren't premeditated. The lawyer called him "a next-door-neighbor type, a nice uncle" caught up in "an unfortunate, tragic situation." I've covered many grisly crimes and heard many lame excuses from lawyers, so the journalist in me stayed cool. The rest of me was angry. In college I weighed studying law so I could protect noble defendants from the power of the state. But as years passed, ghouls like Tenner left me feeling chumped. As Tenner's hearing concluded, the trucker, his face still pocked by pellet wounds, shuffled forward to speak. "I never did anything to harm him," murmured Albert Sauls, still mystified by the slaughter.

All this has embarrassed Ryan, but he's still considering mass clemency. He's also halted Illinois executions until lawmakers adopt reforms that would offer defendants more protections. But Ryan's threat of wholesale commutations, negating the difficult work of judges and juries, strikes me as bizarre, given what I now know about some of those who were convicted.

I've read about Drew Terrell, who allegedly told police he was "looking for a pain response" as he sexually assaulted and slowly killed a 15-month-old girl. And about Fedell Caffey and Jacqueline Williams, convicted of killing a woman and two of her children in order to steal a third child--a full-term fetus slashed from the murdered woman's womb. Then there's Robert Turner, who with two friends masqueraded as cops to stop a 16-year-old girl driving to a wedding reception. Bridget Drobney was raped in a dark cornfield, then stabbed to death as she begged for her life in screams that turned to bloody gurgles. Now her family is reduced to begging that his sentence be fulfilled. "Ryan's days as governor are coming to an end, but his decision is going to live forever," her father pleaded at Turner's hearing.

I know some foreign governments consider the death penalty so ignoble that they won't extradite criminals to our courts. But that now strikes me as too convenient, too blind to the scorn some killers show for innocents. Those like Turner aren't just savage; often they take a studied, almost gleeful pleasure in their work. I'm not clamoring for mass executions. Still, in cases such as his, 1 percent of the time, I have no trouble asking for what seems like justice.