Surprise and disappointment followed when McHenry County Judge Robert Wilbrandt on Friday sentenced JoAnn Cunningham to 35 years in prison for the first-degree murder of her 5-year-old son in Crystal Lake.
With a heinous crime and damning evidence, many expected Cunningham would get the maximum 60 years, a virtual life sentence for someone who already is a hard 37.
Yet even that wouldn’t have been enough for some people, such as sate Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, who responded to Cunningham’s sentence by tweeting “We need to restore the death penalty in IL!”
McSweeney is the Legislature’s leading capital punishment advocate, having co-sponsored a 2018 bill to allow the death penalty for those convicted of murdering police and in 2019 working to fully overturn the 2011 abolition.�
Along the way he smartly acknowledged past problems with wrongful convictions and highlighted dramatic improvement in DNA testing. However, he’s yet to address the most important question: why would we be better off with the power to kill?
The Death Penalty Information Center studied 30 years of FBI Uniform Crime Report data, showing southern states, which account for more than 80 percent of executions, “consistently had by far the highest murder rate.” Northeast states account for fewer than 0.5% of executions had the lowest murder rate.
Another challenge is that prosecution carrying a possible death sentence can cost three or four times more than those where the stiffest penalty is a life sentence, depending on the jurisdiction.
The Center also noted more than 165 people were released from death row since 1973 based on evidence proving them innocent. Estimates on the number of innocent people actually put to death in the past half century range from 15 to more than 40. DNA testing is better, but it’s not foolproof — and neither are eyewitness testimony or peer juries.
So where’s the wisdom in enacting a stiffer penalty that adds strain on an underfunded criminal justice systems, isn’t proven to act as a crime deterrent and opens the door to using taxpayer dollars to commit uncorrectable, fatal errors?
JoAnn Cunningham committed a horrible crime. There can be no counterargument. But there’s not a single reason to believe she’d have acted any differently if prosecutors could wield the gas chamber, nor should we consider the possibility that executing Cunningham would serve as a warning to other people unable to overcome substance abuse.
If there’s any way to use taxpayer dollars to prevent these tragedies, it’s heavy investment in repairing the Department of Children and Family Services. Don’t lament the inability to kill one criminal if it trumps concern for 17,000 kids under state supervision.
For them, we can —�and should — do better than cold vengeance.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at [ mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ]email@example.com.
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July 21, 2020 at 11:10AM