Monday, November 22, 2010

Knowing too clearly

From yesterday's Northwest (Illinois) Herald, this guest column, "Time to Repeal the Death Penalty in Illinois":

The death penalty in Illinois, currently under moratorium, is broken.

People sentenced to death sit on death row for years and years with no execution in sight. Murder victim family members wait for something to happen and suffer years of uncertainty. Whether you support the death penalty or not, we all know that this simply is not working.

So the question is what to do about it. Should we lift the moratorium, shorten the process and execute at a faster pace? Or should we drop this failed policy once and for all?

I have the strange and unique position of truly being able to view it from all sides. My husband, Gary Gauger, was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of his parents, a crime he did not commit. The state of Illinois, having no physical or eyewitness evidence, convicted Gary based on an alleged confession obtained after hours of interrogation filled with lies and omissions intended to get him to confess.

Gary was sentenced to death despite having no prior incidents of violence. The funny thing is, when there is scant evidence to convict, there is nothing to show a mistake was made either. Gary’s innocence was proven by mere happenstance. A totally unrelated federal investigation of a violent biker gang revealed facts from an informant as to the real killers of Gary’s parents.

Two men eventually were convicted of committing their murders. Since Gary’s brush with death row, our family has met dozens of other death row exonorees who spent decades in jail before their innocence was revealed.

If we were to shorten the process, we would clearly increase the number of executions of innocent people in our state. It is so hard to undo a conviction once it is obtained, and I wonder if there are others who have been wrongly imprisoned but have no federal investigation to happen to set them free.

On the other hand, my family lost two vibrant beautiful human beings to senseless violence. We are glad that the real killers were apprehended and convicted. We also are glad that they did not receive death sentences.

Knowing too clearly why the death penalty process can’t be shortened, we would not want to go through years of appeals and constant media attention that death sentences deliver. A sentence that assures our safety and ends our involvement with the legal process allows us to begin to move forward with our lives.

Resources that would be spent in endless appeals could be given to surviving family members who have very serious long-term needs with little available help.

It is time to admit that the death penalty cannot be fixed, and that the moratorium causes additional pain to murder victim family members.

The legislature should repeal the death penalty and increase funds available for homicide survivors.

• Sue Rekenthaler and Gary Gauger live on their family farm in Richmond.

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