By Lauren N. Johnson with Jamey Dunn contributing
After a decade-long ban on the use of capital punishment in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn today abolished the state’s death penalty and commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates on death row.
“I believe if we abolish the death penalty in Illinois that we should abolish it for everyone,” Quinn said shortly after announcing what he called the most difficult decision he has made as governor. Quinn said he sought input from citizens on both sides of the debate while mulling his choice. He said he read letters and books and sat down with individuals to get their perspectives on the controversial issue. “It’s probably impossible for me to talk to everyone, but I certainly talked to a representative number of every single one of those who have an interest in this issue. That’s the best you can do.”
Senate Bill 3539, sponsored by Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat and Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a Maywood Democrat, will permanently abolish the death penalty after July 1.
“When I entered the General Assembly, I was on the other side of the issue,” Yarbrough said. “But when you become a representative of the people, it’s up to us to study the tough issues, to understand both sides of the issue and then come down on one side or the other. I feel like I came down on the right side of the issue.”
In Illinois, capital punishment cases cost the state more than $100 million, according to the sponsors of the legislation. Proponents say the measure will lead to cost savings and prevent wrongful executions. The law also requires creation of a fund to be spent on support for homicide victim’s families and police training. “I want to say to the family members of victims, those who have been murdered, there are no words in the English language or any language to relieve your pain, and I understand that,” said Quinn.
The repeal comes years after serious flaws were detected in Illinois' criminal justice system, especially in the prosecution of capital cases. In 2000, former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after a number of death row inmates had been found to be wrongfully convicted,. He commuted the death sentences of more than 150 inmates to life in prison in 2003.
Randy Steidl, one of the inmates exonerated after he was wrongfully convicted in 1987, said there will always be wrongful convictions, but innocent people who are put to death they lose the chance to fight for their freedom. “You can’t have an irreversible system when you know full well innocent people go to prison,” he said. He added that shocking crimes, such as those that often become capital cases, put pressure on law enforcement and prosecutors to convict someone. “Those are exactly the kind of cases that end up being wrongful convictions because of public outcry [and] pressure on police and prosecutors to solve the case. ... It’s a system made up of humans, and humans have agendas. And even if prosecutors do everything above board, there’s still that possibility that you’ve got the wrong person.”
While Quinn said during his campaign for governor that he supported having the death penalty as an option for the most heinous crimes, he also said he supported the moratorium. Today, Quinn said after lawmakers passed the abolition bill, he thought it was his “duty” to rethink the issue. “I felt it was important to study every aspect of the death penalty system,” Quinn said. He pointed to inconsistencies in when and why prosecutors seek the death penalty. A study commissioned by Ryan found that those who killed a white victim in a rural area were much more likely to be sentenced to death than others convicted of murder. Quinn said a “consistent and perfect” death penalty system in all 102 counties of the state is impossible. and since other punishments are available for serious crimes, capital punishment is not necessary. He commuted sentences of the 15 inmates on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Opponents argued the importance of the death penalty option for those who commit heinous crimes and said reforms in place that require taping of interrogations and DNA testing lessen the risk of wrongful convictions. “Our system is not broken; it has been fixed,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican.
In an attempt to address disparities in the system, Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, proposed SB 2277, which would set up a statewide panel of judges and prosecutors to oversee capital punishment cases. He said, “While all life is precious, those crimes — the worst of the worst — go to the heart of the order of our society.” Dillard said his bill would address concerns that race, gender, geographic location and economic status factor into death penalty sentencing in Illinois.