03/11/2011 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Illinois Gives Up the Death Penalty for Lent (and Beyond)

Maybe it was purely coincidence, but something striking took place in Illinois when Governor Pat Quinn chose March 9 to sign legislation abolishing the death penalty in his state. In the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday (falling this year on that date) traditionally marks a time of abstinence, in which the individual believer gives up something she values during the 40-day period leading up to Easter. (I remember, as a child, other kids struggling to stay away from candy for six weeks -- the obvious choice of a pleasure with which pre-teens would try to part.)

But this Ash Wednesday, we've seen an entire state swearing off a popular American idea of putting felons to death. Bear in mind, too, this didn't happen in Rhode Island. Illinois ranks right up there among the big states -- 13 million people, 19 Congressional seats, 3rd-largest city, (occasionally) winning sports teams! So, there could be a societal impact when the Land of Lincoln becomes the 16th state to choose to enforce justice without recourse to lethal injecting people convicted of heinous crimes.

Illinois's choice is countercultural: The death penalty has been widely popular among Americans in a way rare among our peers in the post-industrialized world. Sure, it takes years to carry out a death sentence per convicted prisoner (lots of appeals to exhaust) and it costs millions to conduct each execution, but this is one service that taxpayers in a lot of states don't seem to mind shelling out the dollars for. Politiicans, who like to follow a crowd, have rarely seen any gain in bucking the trend. They may remember what happened to former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a death penalty opponent, when he ran for president against then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Let's just say, to borrow a current political locution, he took a shellacking for his opinion.

Which would seem to make Pat Quinn's decision all the more remarkable, wouldn't it?

Well, yes ... but for a couple of factors. The first is the possibility that some sort of change in attitude may be going on nationally. Is support for the death penalty losing steam? The number of men and women put to death on the public dime has declined, rather radically, since peaking in 1999 -- from 98 individuals in that year to 46 in 2010 (the stats come from the Death Penalty Information Center, an oft-quoted source for news media in these matters). In recent years, a couple of other states have decided to do away with death row. New Mexico abolished its death penalty in 2009.

More to the point, a lot of people in Illinois have felt a creeping doubt that putting people to death is an unfailingly scientifically objective status to carry out justice. A former governor, George Ryan, put a moratorium on executions in place a decade back, after state offiicals became convinced that some of their death row population were in fact innocent of the capital crimes for which they were convicted. Fully 20 people were exonerated. Apparently, it left enough of suspicion in Springfield, the state's capitol, that it just might be possible that the state would, sooner or later, put a non-guilty person to death. Unbelieveable, you say?

And then, for death penalty doubters, there was a singular incident back in 1999, just across Mississippi River from Illinois, in St. Louis. Pope John Paul II showed up on what would be his final pastoral visit to the United States and, one evening, shook hands in a public ceremony with Governor Mel Carnahan. As he did so, the pope asked Carnahan, point blank, to commute the death sentence of the next person that Missouri planned to execute.

The governor, a death penalty supporter, his hand clasped by the pope, said, yes. He took a certain amount of political heat for that decision, as you might imagine. But it should not have come as a great surprise that John Paul might just ask something like that. After all, four years earlier, he had written an encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," in which he said that the death penalty really didn't make a lot of sense in nations with the technological capabilties to keep dangerous felons locked up for life.

In other words, the pope seemed to be saying, we weren't living in the Middle Ages any more.