I felt like I could almost reach out and touch all the sadness and fury last week, as I talked with Mark and Ruth Adcock, Glenda and Ron Kretzer and their daughter Stacy.
The family was gathered in the Kretzers' living room last week to talk about their anger at Illinois Governor George Ryan for putting a moratorium on executions in the state. Just listening to their story made me wonder how these people have been able to go on with their lives.
Three years ago, in the middle of the night, someone broke into the home of Ruth and Glenda's parents, Jean and Charlie Brewer, and murdered them and their 37-year-old daughter Bonnie. It was a horrible and brutal death.
All three had their throats slit and had been stabbed repeatedly - Bonnie, so hard that the tip end of the knife broke off and was found embedded in her skull. The killer, one William Bradley Kershner, was identified through DNA evidence. Members of the family spoke to me of the desolation and the emptiness they feel because of this vile act. They want Kershner to be executed under state law, as the jury so ordered.
But the governor is afraid to let any more executions go forward in his state because since 1987, 13 men on death row have been exonerated. One of them, Anthony Porter, came within two days of being put to death by lethal injection.
The reasons for the false convictions are numerous: jailhouse snitches and other witnesses who were trying to better their own situations by lying; coerced confessions from defendants who were mentally impaired; ineffective, inexperienced and incompetent counsel, who didn't bother to try to poke holes in the prosecutions' cases.
Many of the death sentences were overturned due to the work of law and journalism students and their professors at Northwestern University. In a couple of cases students even hunted down the real killers and helped pry confessions out of them.
Is it possible that someone who was really innocent was executed? Well, the amount of work it takes to investigate a case where the convict is still alive is so great that no one has put in the effort it takes to try to exonerate someone already dead.
But Northwestern Law Professor Larry Marshall, who helped found Northwestern's Center for Wrongful Convictions, thinks it's a distinct possibility. And even the staunchest proponent of the death penalty would have to recoil in horror at the possibility that the state had killed the wrong person in the name of justice.
So both sides have their point. The governor and those who support the oratorium believe that the entire system is so flawed that there is no way to be absolutely certain that any executions can go forward for now. The governor has appointed a special commission to advise him on how to make the system fair and just.
But the Brewer family knows that DNA at the crime scene and a wealth of other evidence tie the convicted killer to the deaths of their loved ones; and they believe the governor should make a case-by-case determination for every death-penalty conviction in their state, rather than just putting a moratorium on all executions.
It's not that these folks think that the innocent should be punished, but that the guilty should be held accountable.
So who is right here? After all, this is life we are talking about - the life of anyone who has been the victim of murder, and the life of anyone who could possibly be on death row by mistake. And it is easy to understand both the reluctance to proceed with executions where guilt could be in doubt, and the desire to see a truly guilty murderer punished for the crime. There are no good answers.