In Illinois, 13 men on death row were set free after DNA tests or other evidence proved them innocent. Illinois Governor George Ryan wisely placed a moratorium on executions. According to my 1997 Almanac, 13 states did not have the death penalty in 1993, as did none of our territories. Most industrialized countries do not have the death penalty and think we are barbarians, but then, their societies are not as diverse and violent as ours.
Some of the characteristics of the prisoners on death row are interesting and surprising. In 1993, of the 2,716 prisoners on death row, 1,566 were white and 1,150 black and other minorities of color, percentages obviously out of proportion to the population. Only 13 were under 20 years old, 211 between the ages of 20 to 24 years and the big numbers were between the ages of 25 and 34 (1,066) and 35 and 54 (1,330.) Then the testosterone must leave the male body by the buckets, because by age 55 years and older, the figure plummets to 96. Unbelievable.
Of course, in our quest for equality, women are beginning to work themselves onto death row and be executed, of only rarely. Isn't that special? And speaking of women, nearly half of death row prisoners in 1993 had never been married. 671 were married at the time of conviction and 823 were divorced or separated, widows, widowers and unknown. The moral could be, of course, that the better men get along with women, the less likely they will end up on death row.
Nearly half of death row prisoners in 1993 had been there for over six years. Most were not ''under sentence'' when arrested. Just to illustrate how modern and humane we are, in 1993, in Montana and Washington hanging was still accepted as a form of execution, and Utah could utilize a firing squad.
When it comes to education, 65% of death row inmates had some high school education or had graduated and in stark contrast, those with schooling of 8th grade or less made up 7 percent of the death row population. The rest included 244 with more than 12 years of schooling. These figures seem to belie the notion that mostly uneducated people commit violent crimes.
So what's the answer? Stop the executions, for sure. And I've long argued that prison should only be for those who are a danger to society and we ought to find other forms of punishment for nonviolent offenses.
As long as we put pressure on law enforcement officials and the courts to provide quick convictions and sentences, deadly mistakes will be made. Unfortunately our prejudices and human frailties will always be barriers to perfect justice. But we have to keep trying to do better. Lives of innocent men and women are on the line.
Caroline Porter is a freelance writer from Galesburg and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 309/342-1337.