“I turned 21 in prison, doin’ life without parole,” Merle Haggard sang in “Mama Tried.”
That is the situation Dmitry Smirnov finds himself in. Last Friday, the young Canadian pleaded guilty to shooting his ex-girlfriend to death in an Oak Brook parking lot. He asked for, and received, a sentence of natural life in prison -- the severest sentence an Illinois court can impose, now that the death penalty has been abolished. Given his youth, Smirnov’s sentence could eventually eclipse the record of William Heirens, who has been imprisoned since 1946 for committing three murders on the North Side of Chicago. Next year, Heirens will pass Van Dyke Grigsby for the title of longest-serving prisoner in American history. (Grigsby served 66 years in Indiana prisons, from 1908 to 1974. After his release, Johnny Cash wrote a song about Grigsby, titled “Michigan City Howdy Do,” after the prison where he did his time.)
After Smirnov turned himself in to police, he admitted researching Illinois’s death penalty statutes before committing the murder. DuPage County State’s Atty. Robert Berlin blamed the abolition of capital punishment for the murder, saying, “make sure Pat Quinn gets a copy of this story.”
Setting aside the death penalty’s role in Smirnov’s motives, would Illinois be better off executing him, or locking him up until the '80s? Death penalty opponents have long argued that life imprisonment is cheaper than capital punishment, because executions are always preceded by years of expensive legal appeals. According to the group Death Penalty Focus:
The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases. This process is needed in order to ensure that innocent men and woman are not executed for crimes they did not commit, and even with these protections the risk of executing an innocent person can not be completely eliminated.
If the death penalty was replaced with a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which costs millions less and also ensures that the public is protected while eliminating the risk of an irreversible mistake [...] More than 3500 men and woman have received this sentence in California since 1978 and NOT ONE has been released, except those few individuals who were able to prove their innocence.
There’s no doubt the death penalty was more expensive here in Illinois, because the city and state paid millions of dollars in settlements to a dozen innocent men freed from Death Row. As the Heirens case demonstrates, even when we did have the death penalty, it wasn’t applied to every murderer, or even most murderers. Illinois is providing room and board to uncounted numbers of men serving life sentences for crimes committed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Heirens’s case was a sensation in its day -- his murders inspired the Fritz Lang movie While The City Sleeps. But now he’s a forgotten 82-year-old man living in the Dixon Correctional Facility, suffering from diabetes, trying to win clemency from the governor. Smirnov will also be forgotten, at least until some as-yet-unborn writer discovers he’s the longest-serving prisoner in the state’s history.
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