Former death row inmate gives justice system message

By Dave Gomez

When Gary Gauger found the body of his murdered father face-down in a pool of blood, he had no idea that death almost would lead to his own.

“It was like I’d stepped into a dream,” said Gauger, an organic farmer who was arrested and convicted for the 1993 murder of his parents before being exonerated.

The former death row inmate spoke to NIU students last night at Swen Parson Hall about his four-year ordeal. This speech was part of the “Road Trip for Justice” tour.

The purpose of the two-week tour of 11 Illinois colleges and universities is to gain support to abolish the death penalty. The tour features speakers ranging from death row inmates to the relatives of murder victims.

Gauger urged the crowd, including many law students, to work to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.

“It takes personal involvement and people to push the changes through,” Gauger said. Gauger was freed thanks to the work of students and family members as well as a federal investigation of a biker turf war that uncovered the actual murderers.

Gauger detailed the events that led to his conviction, including a grueling 18-hour interrogation, falsified police evidence and illegal detainment.

Even more painful for Gauger was seeing prosecutors accuse him of his parents’ murder knowing he was innocent.

“It was devastating,” Gauger said, adding that his faith in the judicial system has been badly damaged.

“Human beings must not be [killing] each other, especially not in the name of victims,” said Jennifer Bishop, a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

Bishop’s sister, brother-in-law and unborn nephew were killed in 1990 by a high school student who broke into their townhome. The case led to an attempt to enact the juvenile death penalty, Bishop said.

Bishop fought the attempt out of love for her sister and the realization that execution would not help grieving families, she said.

Yvonne Cryns, a first-year law student who was friends with Gauger, said she never gave much thought to the death penalty until his conviction.

“You don’t get through your grief when someone dies by killing someone else,” Cryns said.

Others disagreed about the issue.

“If the crime rate is too high, [the death penalty] is a good way to deter criminals,” said Tianran Shu, a graduate student.

Former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, claiming the system was too flawed to be allowed to continue.

“Road Trip for Justice” is sponsored by Amnesty International USA and the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.