Gov. Quinn just signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, according to the state representative who sponsored the bill. It’s a move I personally support, given capital punishment’s tarnished history here, but I read one article this weekend that at least made me more sympathetic to some of its proponents: "The Brand," by David Grann (you can read a Q&A with the author here).

Grann describes a prison-based, Mafia-like underground economy run by the Aryan Brotherhood out of some of the nation’s most tightly controlled prisons. Despite the fact that many of the upper-level members were confined to places like Marion and ADX Florence, and Pelican Bay, the gang managed to run drugs, kill guards, and even order vengeance killings on the outside–including of the family members of targets–according to Gregory Jessner, the assistant U.S. attorney who built a case against the gang’s members using RICO statutes.

ADX FlorenceIt’s an utterly fascinating account of how the Aryan Brotherhood, with no shortage of innovative subterfuge like using sophisticated ciphers and writing in urine, built itself into a powerful, dangerous organization over three decades. And some of the members were already serving life sentences. One, Thomas Silverstein, is considered the country’s most isolated inmate; he killed two inmates in Marion–and then a guard–and is suing over his singular conditions of incarceration.

It does raise a difficult question. Silverstein is surely too dangerous to ever leave prison. Not only that, the federal government contends he’s too dangerous to house in all but the greatest isolation, to the point where his incarceration may be unconstitutional (depending on what happens with his lawsuit), and his past crimes and association with the Aryan Brotherhood make a compelling case for that.

So what do you do? That’s as good a case for capital punishment as exists, no?

That’s the argument Jessner used. He brought capital charges against many of the Aryan Brotherhood’s members, beginning with a case you may recall from 2004, which took place in far downstate Benton, Illinois. There was a mistrial (scroll down), and Jessner had to bring the case again, this time in Santa Ana. Two members got life sentences after the juries deadlocked on sentencing. Another one of Jessner’s targets in the 2004 case, David Sahakian, got an extra 20 years after his case was finally decided in 2009.

In the end, juries didn’t avail themselves of the capital-punishment option, despite the convictions. Meanwhile, the revelations about the death penalty in Illinois continued to unfold. Compelling arguments for the death penalty remain, but it’s clear that in Illinois it wasn’t worth the risk.

Related: The Sun-Times‘s Dave McKinney on the last man to be executed in Illinois, Andrew Kokoraleis. In 2002, Eric Zorn (who covered the Kokoraleis case) wrote:

You need look no further for an example of inequity than Andrew Kokoraleis, the one inmate whose execution you OKd. He was the youngest member of a gang of four spree killers. The second youngest member, witless mope Eddie Spreitzer, is on Death Row. Meanwhile Andrew’s older brother Thomas, another member, is up for parole in 14 years, and the gang’s depraved mastermind, Robin Gecht, has a parole date in 2042.


Photo of ADX Florence: US Bureau of Prisons