Governor Pat Quinn has now put pen to paper and abolished the death penalty in Illinois. The signing was a quiet, solemn event, held in private and attended by only a handful of invited guests.
The tone set by Governor Quinn was just right. I am among those who lobbied the governor for this decision, but there is no joy in winning this battle. A lifetime in criminal law has taught me one thing above all else: It is all tragedy, every bit of it.
As a prosecutor, when I won a case after months of work there was no joy in winning. A conviction does not un-murder a man or un-rape a woman. The best we can hope for is not to compound the tragedies that surround crime of all sorts.
The very real risk of compounded tragedy was the real, best reason for Quinn to repeal the death penalty. A murder cannot be undone; no punishment will bring the victims back. Where we risk compounding that irreversible tragedy is in the chance, however small, that we are executing the wrong person. An individual killing an innocent is horrifying; the state doing so is something even worse.
In seeking out a quiet place in which to make this decision, Quinn showed true respect for the gravity of his choice and those who are affected. For Christians, there is a precedent for that gentle remove. In John 8, Christ was brought to a legal execution, and stopped it by challenging "he who is without sin" to cast the first stone. Sometimes lost in that story, though, is the important detail of what Christ did while the mob pondered his assertion. He withdrew to himself, and drew on the ground with a stick. The Gospel writer did not report what it is that he wrote, but perhaps that is not what is important. It might be that what we are supposed to notice is Christ's quiet, solemn contemplation in the face of great tragedy and difficult interpretation of the law.
No Governor is Christ-like, but in Pat Quinn we saw a faint echo of the solemn respect Jesus showed for such moments soaked in tragedy, and -- in the field of politics -- that is as good as it gets.