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Is the Death Penalty Just?

Perhaps no issue in American public policy is more controversial than whether the state should execute murderers, a punishment that is meted out to a small fraction of those convicted of homicide in the United States. Each year in this country there are about 20,000 murders, 10,000 persons convicted of homicide, 250-300 sentences to death, and about 50-60 executions. Nearly 3,300 murderers sit on death row in the thirty-eight states that authorize capital punishment.

The Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum is pleased to present the first of two lectures on the justice of the death penalty, one on each side of this emotional issue. In this first session one of the nation's most experienced and public defenders of capital punishment, William J. Kunkle, Jr., of the Chicago law firm Cahill, Christian & Kunkle, will argue the case for the justice of the death penalty.

After graduating from Northwestern University Law School in 1969, Kunkle spent three years as a public defender in Chicago, thirteen years in Chicago as a prosecutor in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, and is now completing fourteen years in private practice. He has also served as Chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board, Chief Deputy Special Outside Counsel in the investigation of former Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1988-89, and chief investigator into complaints filed against then Republican Whip Newt Gingrich in 1989. Although his current practice consists of primarily civil cases, he occasionally represents criminal defendants, particularly in federal court. Earlier this year Kunkle made national headlines when, serving as Special State's Attorney appointed by the chief judge of DuPage County (IL), he led an investigation that resulted in a 73-count indictment of four sheriffs police and three former prosecutors for perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice in a controversial local death penalty case.

Most of Kunkle's experience with death penalty cases comes from his thirteen years as a full-time prosecutor. During his time in the State's Attorney's Office Kunkle served as secondin-command to the elected State's Attorney, Richard M. Daley. Kunkle was responsible for administering an office of 585 attorneys, and personally prosecuted nearly eighty felony jury trials, including over fifty murder cases.

Kunkle's most famous case was The People of Illinois vs. John Gacy (1980). One of the nation's most notorious serial killers, Gacy was convicted of killing thirty-three young men and boys. Kunkle led the prosecution team, focusing his efforts particularly on Gacy's insanity defense. In the letter that he wrote which accompanied Gacy to death row, he described Gacy as "a man capable of the cruelest sexual sadism imaginable ... a con-man, a malingerer, a manipulator, a skilled torturer and an equally skilled killer." He concluded: "Justice for thirty-three families and all of the people of Illinois will be finally achieved only when this evil man, John Gacy, is executed according to the laws of this state." The state of Illinois executed Gacy by lethal injection in 1994.

Please join us for a provocative discussion of justice and the death penalty by one of our nation's top litigators.