Janet Kittlaus joined the League of Women Voters in 1980, and in the late 1990s, realized that it was their responsibility to join the conversation Illinois was having state-wide about abolition of the death penalty. Along with other women in the Evanston, Ill., chapter, she took a lead in researching the death penalty in order to present the issue to the statewide group. Their work was instrumental in Illinois’ decision to abolish the death penalty in the state, and the League of Women Voters adoption of a nationwide policy of support for abolition. Kittlaus recently spoke to Bailey Elise McBride on her role, and how she became involved with the fight against the death penalty.
- What initially got you involved in the issue of abolition? Was it one incident, a family belief, or something else?
I became involved in criminal justice issues through my church. A pastor who worked with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois was instrumental in getting me involved in monthly meetings concerned with Illinois prison matters and he also introduced me to the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ICADP) and shortly thereafter I joined the board of ICADP.
- Why was this an important issue to get involved with at the League?
The League had no position on the death penalty and this was becoming an important issue in Illinois. Northwestern University was a leader in highlighting the issue: the Law School (in Chicago) was involved in the exoneration of death row inmates as was a journalism class on the Evanston campus. This class would choose a case and look into the facts of the case and was successful in helping to gain the release of several wrongfully convicted death row inmates. We in the Evanston League began to feel strongly that we had to help the State League adopt an abolition position.
- What are some of your major accomplishments at the League? What are you most proud of that you/the group were able to accomplish?
The Evanston League took the lead in studying the death penalty in Illinois. Because it was a state issue, the local League could not take action, so the purpose of our study was to present our materials to all the local Leagues in Illinois prior to convention in 2001. Delegates then came to convention, prepared to debate whether the League of Women Voters of Illinois could adopt the position and therefore be able to act. The convention did vote to adopt the position (see LWVILdeath penalty position here).
We were then able to be active and important participants in the effort that resulted in accomplishing abolition in Illinois on March 9, 2011.
After achieving a state position, we were concerned that the League be involved nationwide in this fight. And, because some states did not have a state position on abolition, they could use a national position to join the effort. And so, Illinois led the effort in 2004. Despite having sent out study materials to all State Leagues, delegates at convention had other concerns on their minds and they declined to adopt the position, not because they opposed the position, but because they felt their local Leagues had not studied the issue sufficiently. They were concerned that local Leagues would not have developed ownership of the position. I respected this reasoning. And so, two years later, we came back, and in 2006 the LWVUS did adopt the position: “The League of Women Voters of the United States supports the abolition of the death penalty.”
Although the Illinois League was the lead League in this effort, there were many state Leagues and colleagues within these Leagues that made this happen. Besides Illinois, these Leagues especially led the effort: New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.
- Why do you think this is still such a divisive issue in the United States?
I believe any time a particularly terrible murder is committed, people are outraged and want to see appropriate punishment which they assume is death. Unfortunately, when death penalty law is written, a large net is created which ensnares many people, including the innocent. People have romantic notions about the criminal justice system and they assume it “works.” It was quite an education for me when I saw how badly the system works and how slowly justice is achieved for the wrongfully convicted. I think, however, that people are coming to realize that the system does not work as it should and needs reform. But there will always be cries for the death penalty when those terrible incidents occur—as they always will. We, as people, need to be more disciplined in controlling our emotions and not allowing our anger to write bad laws.
- What major changes have you seen over your time working on this issue?
When people allow themselves to learn the truth about the death penalty, they do change their minds. The League did a lot of education on the death penalty and I believe that helped to build the needed support to achieve abolition in Illinois. Recently an Illinois company (Akorn, Inc.) stopped selling a key execution drug (Midazolam) and to put into effect careful restrictions to prevent middlemen from supplying it. Georgia recently halted [two] executions because they don’t trust the [quality of the] drug cocktail they had been using. Such actions surely have a positive effect upon public opinion. Finally, criminal justice reform is now a hot topic in many states and we can only hope that abolitionists can piggyback onto this initiative.
- What changes do you hope to see in the near future?
Our success in Illinois was due to a well-coordinated effort involving the ICADP, the League and other Illinois advocates, the NCADP, and other abolition groups which came into Illinois to help us. Hopefully the reform effort I alluded to [before] is not just about overcrowding and cost, but fundamentally about justice. If so, then we might be successful in achieving abolition and a more just criminal justice system.
- What role do you think women play in the fight for abolition?
Although men and women can genuinely be advocates for justice, I think, perhaps, women are easier to convince—they “get it” faster. Although we worked hard, preparing materials and getting the word out to local Leagues, once they acquainted themselves with the issue, they were, by and large, an easy sell. They understood the issue quickly.
- Is there anything else important to include, either about you, the issue of abolition, the death penalty in America, or Women’s History Month?
In terms of Women’s History Month, I think it is important to continue to remember accurately the women heroes who fought for justice—in the fight for civil rights, for universal suffrage, children’s issues, human rights, etc., etc. Sometimes these stories are romanticized so that forgotten is the suffering that these heroes endured and the tenacious dedication they displayed in working for a better world.
The NCADP has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.