Gauger a reminder of Illinois’ death penalty’s demise

SPRINGFIELD – “These are halls of justice – not mercy,” the prosecutor bellowed before the jury as I wiggled uncomfortably in the back of the courtroom, notebook in hand.

I was fresh out of college and covering courts in Texas when I first wrestled with the notion of justice vs. mercy. 

Justice is when society gives someone a punishment it thinks a defendant deserves. Mercy, on the other hand, is when it extends a hand of compassion.

We are all for compassion when it is we who are standing before the judgment seat. But we aren’t so much for it when it is someone who has wronged us. 

I just finished reading “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer who has devoted his life to representing those sentenced to death. 

He famously was able to prove one of his clients was factually innocent and had the conviction thrown out.

Sometimes, our society makes mistakes. 

And the death penalty is something that makes me uneasy. 

It has since I met a man named Gary Gauger. He was wrongly convicted of murdering his parents in rural McHenry County. He served two years on Illinois’ death row before his conviction was thrown out. 

I met Gauger in 1990 when he dropped by my office, which was then in the Illinois statehouse. He told his tale of wrongful conviction and left me speechless.

I’m libertarian in my philosophy, which means I support limited government. And, let’s face it, there is no greater intrusion of government than when it chooses to kill one of its citizens.

And after 30 years of covering government, I’ve come to the conclusion that it does very little very well. 

Even when it comes to the death penalty, in recent decades, Illinois managed to sentence 13 men to die who were factually innocent. 

For this reason, I’m glad Illinois no longer has capital punishment.

While Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation outlawing the death penalty, it is really Gov. George Ryan who deserves the credit. During his four years in office, he moved from being a supporter of the death penalty to being the nation’s most vocal opponent of capital punishment. He is the man who emptied Illinois’ death row.

I used to say, “I support the death penalty because some people don’t deserve to live.”

And, no, I haven’t become naive. I know there are still bad people among us who should be banished to be forever away from society. 

But what does society gain by killing? Retribution? 

Well, perhaps it’s time to temper our justice with a bit of mercy.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at

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