One of My 'Best Students' Was Sentenced to Die

'Understanding our own humanity is a lifelong project,' Jennifer Lackey writes
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 15, 2020 11:00 AM CST
One of My 'Best Students' Was Sentenced to Die
This 2010 photo shows Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center, where William Peeples Jr. was held when Lackey met him.   (Wikimedia/Rw2)

"The death penalty is purportedly reserved for the 'worst of the worst' or those with 'irretrievably depraved characters.' But this is based on a myth." That's according to Jennifer Lackey, founder and director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. It was through the program that Lackey met William Peeples Jr., who helped form her view that the death penalty should be abolished. In his 50s, Peeples was "a deep and creative thinker," an inspiring classmate, and "one of the best students I'd ever taught," Lackey writes at USA Today. But 30 years earlier, a 26-year-old Peeples was wrongly considered one of these "irretrievably depraved characters," sentenced to death for stabbing his neighbor, Lackey writes. "If former Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan hadn't ended the death penalty ... the State's mistake would have led to the irreversible loss of a deeply treasured life."

"The knowledge of what it means to be 'human' awakened in me true remorse for the harm I have done to others," Lackey quotes Peeples, now a published author and mentor, as saying. "In other words, as he learned, he changed." Such a case "makes clear that we are hopelessly unreliable" at deciding who is "irretrievably depraved," Lackey writes. Indeed, it's "a myth that humans generally have a fixed character." She argues it's no big stretch to extend the reasoning for abolishing the death penalty for juveniles—namely "his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity"—to all adults. After all, "understanding our own humanity is a lifelong project." But Lackey offers other reasons for her stance. "A racially discriminatory, expensive, ineffective, and arbitrarily and capriciously administered practice, the death penalty does nothing but promote injustice," she writes. Her full piece is here. (The ninth federal execution of the year was just carried out.)

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