No matter how you feel about the death penalty, it's flawed

Published: 10/21/2009 12:02 AM

The Brown's Chicken murders are why our legislators decreed that Illinois must have a death penalty. If ever a case cried out for the ultimate punishment, this was it.

Juan Luna and James Degorski committed a mass murder for the thrill of it. They took some cash, enough to throw a decent party, but the evidence suggested a motive more evil and heinous than pure robbery. Luna and Degorski carried out a calm, coldblooded butchery of seven innocent people for no other reason that a desire to "do something big." They slit the throat of a mother and shot her. They gunned down a father, brother, sons, a couple of them just teenagers. All slaughtered in cold blood simply because two murderous thugs needed victims.

Separate Cook County juries decided Luna and Degorski were guilty of those 1993 murders at the fast-food restaurant in Palatine. Those juries decided both men were eligible for the death penalty.

Then both juries ruled that neither killer deserved to die for those crimes.

Meanwhile, a drug dealer who kills another drug dealer in the passion of a deal gone wrong might receive that death sentence. That inconsistency alone is why this state is fortunate our former governor decreed there should be a moratorium on executing murderers in Illinois.

The death penalty is so flawed, you can understand why jurors aren't willing to bet a life that it works. Yet minutes after our story about the jury giving Degorksi a life sentence instead of death appeared online, reader comments included predictions, wishes, and in one case, a reward offer, that Degorski would and should be murdered in prison. Several heaped abuse upon the jurors who gave up seven weeks of their lives in the pursuit of justice.

"Eat (excrement), all you jury members," wrote one reader.

"A bunch of limp-wristed pantywaists," hissed another.

Apparently these readers think a jury should find that killing a person under your control is as easy and thoughtless as Degorski and Luna made it out to be. It isn't.

The jurors who spared the lives of Degorski and Luna weren't wimps. They sent two people to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, a penalty many have described as worse than death.

The message to take from these verdicts is that the death penalty has become so imprecise and imperfect that it should be abolished. The death penalty is arbitrary, inconsistent, racist and sometimes we even give it to the wrong person.

In the quarter-century of Illinois' death penalty before Gov. George Ryan's moratorium in 2000, our state sent 298 people to Death Row, and then discovered, sometimes at the last possible moment, that 20 of them didn't commit the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to die, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. That's an error rate of 6.7 percent. There isn't another life-and-death decision we'd allow to be that haphazard. No one would fly an airline that saw more than one in every 20 flights crash.

Even if jurors are absolutely positive about the guilt of a murderer (and the jurors who convicted the innocent ones were just as certain), the other factors that come into play with a death sentence are subject to whims. Did Luna get a pass because his family seemed nice and supportive? Did jurors spare Degorski because his childhood and family life seemed so horrific? Is a killer who slays seven people on one night less deserving of the death penalty than a man who kills one child on a sudden impulse.

The jurors for Luna and Degorski did their jobs, and did not dole out death sentences. Illinois legislators should understand what they did and likewise remove the death penalty from the choices jurors have.