Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty: Steve Earle’s Over Yonder

Today, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill passed by the state legislature abolishing the death penalty in the state. He also commuted the death sentences of the fifteen Illinois inmates on death row to life in prison. The law takes effect July 1 and will make Illinois the sixteenth state without the death penalty. Illinois also joins other states that have abolished the death penalty in the last several years, including New Mexico and New Jersey. Connecticut, Maryland, and Montana currently are considering abolishing the death penalty.

Gov. Quinn explained: “”Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. . . . With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

Gov. Quinn showed courage in signing the bill, as it is usually easier for politicians to maintain the status quo. Too often politicians use death penalty support as a political issue to play on people’s natural emotions to want murderers killed like in the movies. But in thinking about the death penalty as a criminal justice issue, Gov. Quinn recognized that the death penalty causes too many problems that a logical society should not tolerate. Plus, because maintaining the death penalty is more costly than life in prison, Gov. Quinn reasoned that “the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming pain and grief.” More needs to be done to prevent crime and help those victims harmed by crime, and the death penalty is merely a distraction from the real issues.

Chimesfreedom previously discussed two of Steve Earle’s death penalty songs, so now is a good time to discuss another one. “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” is from his outstanding album, Transcendental Blues. While “Ellis Unit One” is in the voice of a prison guard, “Over Yonder” is like “Billy Austin,” in the voice of a death row inmate. Unlike “Billy Austin,” though, “Over Yonder” is about a real person, and it shows in the song.

Steve Earle catalogs many of the problems with the death penalty in his earlier “Billy Austin,” such as the racial and economic discrimination inherent in the punishment. But in “Over Yonder,” perhaps because he was writing about a real person, Earle tries to convey what a human being would feel like preparing to be executed.

Give my radio to Johnson
Thibodeaux can have my fan
Send my Bible home to Mama
Call her every now and then.

The real subject of the song, Jonathan Nobles, corresponded with Steve Earle for ten years, and the two met and spent several days together talking in the visiting area at Ellis Unit One before Nobles was executed on October 7, 1998 in Texas. Nobles was convicted of killing two women while he was under the influence of drugs in 1986. When he first went to death row, he was a trouble-maker. But as time passed, Nobles became a Catholic and worked to turn his life around. He fasted on his last day and requested Holy Communion for his last meal.

When Earle visited Nobles, they spent a lot of time talking about issues where they shared common ground, such as love of music, their times spent behind bars, their use of drugs, and their recovery from addiction. Steve Earle later wrote an essay about their time together and witnessing Nobles being killed by lethal injection. In Earle’s essay, he concluded that because Nobles had changed so much, society could have learned about rehabilitation from Nobles, which is especially important considering the large number of people in U.S. prisons.

In the song, Earle does not condemn those who executed Nobles, he just tells the story. And he does not argue the inmate is innocent, he just reminds us that he is human.

The world’ll turn around without me
The sun’ll come up in the east
Shinin’ down on all of them that hate me
I hope my goin’ brings ’em peace.

I am going over yonder
Where no ghost can follow me
There’s another place beyond here
Where I’ll be free I believe.

Just as importantly, Earle reminds us that we are human. Because, as has been noted, the death penalty is more about who we are as a society than about the handful of people executed. Gov. Quinn today chose for the state of Illinois to be a little more wiser and more humane.

Bonus Illinois Death Penalty Information: The Chicago Tribune recently did a study of the state’s capital punishment system. The paper found “at least 46 inmates sent to death row in cases where prosecutors used jailhouse informants to convict or condemn the defendants. The investigation also found at least 33 death row inmates had been represented at trial by an attorney who had been disbarred or suspended; at least 35 African-American inmates on death row who had been convicted or condemned by an all-white jury; and about half of the nearly 300 capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing.”

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