Defending ban on executions despite Vaughn’s heinous murders
BY MARK BROWN November 26, 2012 7:06PM
Christopher Vaughn with his wife, Kimberly, and children Blake (left), Cassandra and Abigayle Vaughn in their Oswego home. Kimberly Vaughn and the three children were found shot to death in the family SUV in 2007. | Family photo
Updated: December 28, 2012 6:04AM
Barring some unforeseen delay, Christopher Vaughn will be sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for the murders of his wife and three children, which even strikes a death penalty opponent like me as totally inadequate.
Vaughn was convicted of executing his Oswego family at close range as they sat in their SUV early on the morning of June 14, 2007, parked just off an I-55 frontage road, while supposedly en route to a Downstate water park.
Worse yet in my book, he schemed to get away with it — although not very well as it turned out — by trying to frame his dead wife for the killings.
Now that we’ve abolished the death penalty in Illinois, life imprisonment is the maximum punishment allowed by law.
Will County Judge Daniel Rozak really has no choice in the matter, as life is also the minimum penalty for the multiple murders for which a jury found Vaughn guilty.
That’s why I can so confidently predict the outcome of his sentencing hearing, which was postponed Monday while his lawyers argued for a new trial.
The only real suspense is whether Vaughn will choose to say anything to the judge in his own defense before sentencing.
If I feel as though Vaughn is getting off too easy, I can only imagine what many of the rest of you are thinking.
It’s a legitimate question then: Can I defend eliminating the death penalty in light of a case where I’m forced to admit that the punishment that is left doesn’t do justice to the crime?
I can try.
While I’m one of those who objects to capital punishment on moral grounds, the Illinois death penalty law was repealed, in the end, on more practical considerations.
Very simply, our legal system makes mistakes, and as a result, we were putting people on Death Row who didn’t belong there.
At the time Gov. Pat Quinn signed the repeal legislation, after an 11-year moratorium on executions, it was reported that 20 people convicted and sentenced to death since 1977 had been exonerated.
It was a frightening record for something so important, so final, so irreversible as government-sanctioned killing. And after many years of debate, a majority of our state legislators decided they could no longer be a party to it.
Rather than pretend they could fix a system that is inherently fallible because of the role of humans, they chose to eliminate the possible mistake that can never be fixed — putting an innocent person to death.
Abolishing the death penalty was never so much a conscious decision to go easier on those who committed heinous crimes but to take into account the ones who didn’t do it.
Although unfamiliar with the particulars of the Vaughn case, Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and a lead sponsor of the death-penalty repeal bill, understands the sentiment that would lead one to say Vaughn is getting off too easy.
“When you have such a heinous and unforgivable crime like that, there is no penalty that you will emotionally feel is adequate,” Raoul told me Monday.
“There is no perfect eye for an eye. Even putting him to death wouldn’t make one feel like he got what he deserved,” he added.
Some will say the Vaughn case is a good example of a case where there is no doubt that he is guilty of the crimes charged, which is why a jury took less than an hour to reach a verdict after five and a half weeks of testimony.
As Raoul points out, there is no way to write a death penalty law to include only the cases “when you know that you know.”
Vaughn’s respected defense lawyer, George Lenard, argued Monday that the short deliberation was in effect no deliberation at all and should be among the grounds for a new trial. He wasn’t very convincing.
I left the court being thankful that defense lawyers such as Lenard no longer have the terrible burden of trying to keep their clients from being executed.
If Vaughn is to spend the rest of his life in prison, perhaps we could require him to cover the walls of his cell with posters of the Yukon wilderness to which he hoped to escape — a constant reminder of the freedom he will never enjoy.