Illinois Public Media News
More than a decade after Illinois put all executions on hold, a bill to abolish the death penalty altogether awaits only the governor's signature.
But Pat Quinn's approval is hardly assured. While he says he supports capital punishment when properly applied, he has not yet indicated whether he will sign the proposal, despite intense pressure from fellow Democrats.
"I think it's important, given the importance of this measure, that people from all over Illinois express their opinions," Quinn said Wednesday, a day after lawmakers sent the historic bill to his desk. "I'm happy to listen and reflect, and I'll follow my conscience."
And as he listens, the world watches.
Former Gov. George Ryan thrust Illinois' death penalty system into the spotlight when he imposed the moratorium in 2000 and again when he emptied death row in 2003.
When Ryan called for the moratorium, the state had executed 12 death row inmates since 1977. The sentences of 13 others had been overturned.
In some of those 13 cases, evidence showed the suspects were innocent. In others, the trials were deemed unfair or confessions were found to be coerced by abusive police. Since then, the number of overturned capital cases has risen to 20.
In Illinois, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, the death penalty is an issue that pits those who have lost loved ones to violence against those who have lost years of their lives to prison for crimes they didn't commit. And both sides plan to give Quinn an earful.
Bill Sloop said death is the only just punishment for the man who shot and killed one of his daughters and wounded another in a 1996 attack that also left a second girl dead and two toddlers permanently injured.
To Sloop, inmates "wouldn't be on death row if they didn't deserve to be there."
"To keep them on life in prison without parole . that's our taxpayer dollars keeping somebody alive that didn't care about other people's lives," Sloop said. The convicted killer, Daniel Ramsey, "did not care what our daughter asked. She asked him not to shoot, and she begged, and he went ahead and did it. And the only real justice for him is the death penalty."
But for former death row inmate Ronald Kitchen, the death penalty delivered anything but justice. Kitchen spent 13 of his 21 years in prison on death row after being coerced into confessing to five murders he had nothing to do with. He was released in 2009 and plans to lobby Quinn to sign the repeal.
"I want Governor Quinn to see my face," Kitchen said. "Just nine years ago, I was sitting on death row, fighting, hoping that the truth will come out, that my innocence will be proven ... that I was an innocent man sitting on death row waiting to be murdered by the state."
"The system is not working," he said.
Three years after imposing the moratorium, Ryan cleared death row of 171 people, commuting most sentences to life in prison and freeing four more inmates whose guilt was in doubt. Significant changes - including more money and training for defense attorneys, videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence - soon followed.
Just a month after death row was emptied, courts began sentencing inmates to death again. Death row currently has 15 occupants. The last execution in Illinois was in 1999.
If Quinn rejects the death penalty repeal, he would go against his fellow Democrats, who pushed the bill through the Legislature over the last week.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, urged colleagues to help the state "join the civilized world by ending this practice of putting to death innocent people."
There's no proof Illinois ever executed an innocent person.
Quinn is being tight-lipped not only about his decision but also his decision-making process. Asked whether religion will weigh in his thinking, he repeated that he plans to listen carefully. The newly inaugurated governor is Roman Catholic, a church that condemns capital punishment.
Former law enforcement officials in the Senate had argued that prosecutors need the threat of death to get guilty pleas from suspects who opt for life in prison. And prosecutors complained that legislators rushed the repeal measure through.
"I believe that they're leaving the family members completely out of the process," said Jefferson County State's Attorney Nicole Villani, who helped to prosecute death row inmate Cecil Sutherland. "I just don't feel like their voices were heard."
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already ended capital punishment. Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana are among those that have considered repeal in the past year or still are reviewing it, according to abolition advocates.
"This is just the beginning," said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Illinois is really in the beginning of a wave.
Wednesday is State Representative Bob Flider's final day as a member of the Illinois General Assembly.
The Mt. Zion Democrat narrowly lost his re-election bid in November against Decatur Republican Adam Brown. Flider, who has served in the Illinois House since 2003, described his time in office as a period marked with frustration from an ousted governor to a sluggish economy.
"The thing that's most frustrating about this place is it's about power, it's about politics, and it's about posturing," Flider said. "To so many it's easy to sit in a minority and point fingers and blame the majority for all the problems."
Flider noted that it bothers him when lawmakers are criticized for appearing not to do enough work.
"You know coming together on important issues like raising revenues and expenditures is a real challenge," he said. "The people who work here who represent their constituents who come here everyday don't deserve to be viewed as if they are slouches not getting the job done."
Reflecting on his career in the legislature, Flider praised his efforts working with community leaders by focusing on infrastructure needs. He also cited his work to pass utility reforms aimed at saving consumers money. He said as the state progresses financially, there needs to be more of a concentration on matching the state's ability to generate electricity with the growing economy.
"If Congress decides to enact new rules and laws that makes it difficult to use the Illinois coal we have from the power plants that we have," he said. "We're going to have to come to terms with getting new generation online that is not being built right now."
As one of his final legislative acts Tuesday night, Flider reluctantly voted in favor of an income tax hike, even though he has traditionally come out against supporting one. He said it was the most difficult vote he has cast during his eight years in office.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
In the 11th hour of the 96th General Assembly, lawmakers in Springfield passed an income tax increase, which could chip away at unpaid bills to the state's universities.
But there is another measure in the Illinois House that will be introduced later this year sponsored by Rep. Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) and Rep. Chad Hays (R-Daville) that seeks to improve the economic outlook for higher education without raising taxes.
"How do we work together in a way that makes sense to do a better job with limited resources?" Hays said. "This is one small step in that direction, and my hope would be that we're having many of these conversations as we go forward."
The legislation would create a moratorium on new, unfunded mandates on state universities. University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy said even public policy with the best intentions can lead to mandates which make it difficult for universities to operate in a cost-effective way.
"You know, unfunded mandates that gets talked about frequently are tuition waivers," Hardy said. "That's something that should be looked at to free up potentially millions of dollars in tuition waivers that public universities across the state are funding."
The University of Illinois system is waiting on $413 million in reimbursements from the state. It has explored ways to improve its budget situation through furloughs, department consolidations, and a tuition hike. The U of I's Board of Trustees is slated to vote Jan. 20 on a series of fee increases for its students.
Hays noted that another important part of the legislation includes a provision that would create a single procurement officer who would coordinate purchases for every university in the state.
He added that the legislation was influenced by the recommendations of officials at the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois University, and he expects the measure to be introduced in the spring.
Democrats in the Illinois Legislature on Wednesday approved a 66 percent income-tax increase in a desperate and politically risky effort to end the state's crippling budget crisis.
The increase now goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who supports the plan to temporarily raise the personal tax rate to 5 percent, a two-thirds increase from the current 3 percent rate. Corporate taxes also would climb as part of the effort to close a budget hole that could hit $15 billion this year.
The higher taxes will generate about $6.8 billion a year, Quinn's office said - a major increase by any measure. In percentage terms, 66 percent might be the biggest increase any state has adopted while grappling with recent economic woes.
It will be coupled with strict 2 percent limits on spending growth. If officials violate those limits, the tax increase will automatically be canceled. The plan's supporters warned that rising pension and health care costs probably will eat up all the spending allowed by the caps, forcing cuts in other areas of government.
Other pieces of the budget plan failed.
Lawmakers rejected a $1-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes, which would have provided money for schools. They also blocked a plan to borrow $8.7 billion to pay off the state's overdue bills, which means long-suffering businesses and social-service agencies won't get their money anytime soon.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, sounding weary, said Republicans should have supported some parts of the plan instead of voting against everything.
"They're on the sidelines. They don't want to get on the field of play," the Chicago Democrat said. "I'm happy that the day has ended."
But Republicans noted they were not included in negotiations. They also fundamentally reject the idea of raising taxes after years of spending growth.
"We're saying to the people of Illinois, 'For eight years we've overspent, now we're going to make it your problem,'" said Rep. Roger Eddy. "We're making up for our mistakes on your back."
The increase means an Illinois resident who now owes $1,000 in state income taxes will pay $1,666 at the new rate. After four years, the rate drops to 4 percent and that same taxpayer will then owe $1,333.
Republicans predict the tax eventually will be made permanent.
"It's a cruel hoax to play on citizens to say this is temporary," said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego.
Democrats bristled at the idea that they are to blame for the state's financial problems, although they've controlled the governor's office and both legislative chambers since 2003.
They said some parts of the problem began under Republican governors and that Republicans backed some of the budgets that increased spending. They argued the national recession sent state revenues into a nosedive and that Democrats already have cut spending by billions of dollars.
"This mess is a mess that is the responsibility of all of us as Republicans and Democrats, of several different governors and part of the mess isn't even anybody's fault," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.
The new tax money will balance the state's annual budget and let officials begin chipping away at the backlog of unpaid bills. Borrowing money, and then repaying it with a portion of the tax increase, would have allowed those bills to be paid immediately, aiding organizations that provide services for the state but go months without being reimbursed.
The delay and the spending limits are "very troubling" to groups pushing for the state to come up with money to pay its bills, said Sean Noble, policy director for Voices for Illinois Children, a member of the statewide Responsible Budget Coalition. Still, he called the tax increase "an enormous step" toward putting Illinois on sound financial footing.
The proposal passed the House on Tuesday night by a vote of 60-57, the bare minimum. No Republicans backed the measure there or in the Senate, where the measure passed 30-29.
Legislative leaders were eager to pass the plan before a new General Assembly was sworn in Wednesday, taking a slice out of the Democratic majority and removing lame-duck lawmakers who might be willing to support the tax before leaving office.
The governor has refused to discuss the tax proposal publicly, although his aides say he supports it. During his election campaign, Quinn promised to veto any tax plan that was higher than his proposal for a 1-point increase.
Early Wednesday, Quinn's office called the approved measure "strong action" that will strengthen the budget and actually help the state economy.
Republicans accused Democrats of doing irreparable harm to Illinois families and businesses. Business leaders decried the proposal as a job-killer.
"Based on this particular legislation the only businesses that will benefit are the moving companies that will be helping many of my members move out of this particular state," said Gregory Baise, head of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association.
"This is the nuclear bomb of jobs bills," said Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington.
Democrats countered that even with the increase, Illinois' tax rate will be lower than in many neighboring states - Iowa's top rate is 8.98 percent, Wisconsin's is 7.75 percent. They also maintain that without more money, state government may not be able to pay employees by the end of the year. Major government services might have to be halted, they warn, and groups waiting for state payments will go under.
"The wolf is at the door, ladies and gentleman," said Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago.
Spending limits were added to the plan to win the support of some suburban Democrats. Republicans said the limits don't do enough to clamp down.
The limits allow next year's spending to increase considerably so the state can make its required contribution to government retirement systems, pay overdue bills and cover other costs that had been shoved aside. After that, however, spending could not grow more than 2 percent annually for the next three years or else the tax increase would be reversed.
"We're really trying to handcuff ourselves and the governor in our spending," said Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat.
A major increase in state income taxes has squeaked through the Illinois House as lawmakers search for a way to solve a historic budget crisis.
The tax would set the personal tax rate at 5 percent, up from 3 percent now. That would be a 67 percent increase. Corporate taxes would climb, too.
Gov. Pat Quinn's office says the tax increase would generate about $6.8 billion a year.
The increase passed 60-57. It now goes to the state Senate, which could still vote Tuesday night.
The Illinois House has rejected a proposal to raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack.
The measure was one part of a larger tax plan that would generate about $7 billion a year to help close Illinois' massive budget deficit. The cigarette portion was supposed to produce about $375 million.
The cigarette proposal got only 51 of the 60 votes needed to pass Tuesday, but it could be brought back for another vote later.
Adding a dollar would more than double the tax rate for cigarettes.
Many lawmakers said that would hurt convenience stores and gas stations that sell cigarettes. They said the impact would be particularly harsh in border areas where neighboring states have lower taxes.
A total of five people will be vying for a vacant Champaign city council seat.
Two additional people have submitted applications, in addition to Paul Faraci, Catherine Emanuel, and Jim McGuire, who are also seeking the District 5 seat in a write-in election this April. Former Champaign County Board member and township official Linda Cross, and Steve Meid of Signature Homes also met Tuesday's noon deadline with hopes of holding the seat on an interim basis.
The Champaign City Council seat became vacant following the appointment of Gordy Hulten as Champaign County clerk.
Interviews will be held at next Tuesday's city council meeting, and an appointment will be made Feb. 1.
The Illinois Senate voted Tuesday to abolish capital punishment, sending the historic issue to Gov. Pat Quinn and putting the state back at the center of an ongoing national debate.
Quinn wouldn't say whether he would sign the legislation.
In a state that has removed 20 wrongly condemned people from death row since 1987, the Senate voted 32-25 to end execution more than a decade after a former governor halted the punishment he called "haunted by the demon of error."
"We have a historic opportunity today, an opportunity to part company with countries that are the worst civil rights violators and join the civilized world by ending this practice of putting to death innocent people," said Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who sponsored the measure.
Illinois would be the fourth state since 2007 to rid its books of capital punishment.
But Democrat Quinn, already wrapped up in a debate over a massive tax increase that could sully his political future, won't say what he will do with an issue historically so explosive it can end careers. He supports the death penalty but said he would not lift the moratorium on executions imposed in 2000 by then-Gov. George Ryan until he was sure the system worked.
National experts and advocates said repeal in Illinois - which has executed a dozen people in the last three decades and at one time had 170 condemned inmates - puts weight behind the national discussion.
"This is a state in which this was used and then stopped, it was debated for years, fixed - or reformed - and finally there was a resolution by just getting rid of it, so that's about as thorough a process as any state could do," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "That's significant."
Former law enforcement officials in the Senate had argued prosecutors need the threat of death to get guilty pleas from suspects who opt for life in prison. They said allowing police and state's attorneys to continue seeking capital punishment will make them more willing to accept reforms in the ways crimes are investigated and prosecuted.
Others argued citizens still want the death penalty option for the worst of crimes.
"It's not a question of vengeance," said Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. "It's a question of the people being outraged at such terrible crimes, such bloodletting."
Illinois would join 15 states and the District of Columbia in ridding its books of capital punishment, including three - New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York - since 2007. A New York court declared the state's law unconstitutional in 2004 but decreed three years later it applied to the last inmate on death row.
"It's a clear trend," said Debra Erenberg, Midwest regional director for Amnesty International USA. Illinois' problems have "been a very clear exhibit of the flaws in the death penalty and the way it's been implemented across the country."
Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana are among other states that have considered repeal in the past year or still are pursuing it, experts said.
There's no proof Illinois ever executed an innocent person. But one man was hours from death before he was exonerated and 12 others had been removed from death row when Ryan put a moratorium on death and created a commission to study its problems. Just before leaving office in 2003, he cleared death row by commuting the death sentences of 167 people and exonerated four more.
Lawmakers, who already had created a state fund to pay for competent capital defenses, implemented further reforms that year, including training for defense lawyers, more thorough investigative practices such as videotaping confessions, and easier access to DNA testing.
Those reforms are working, opponents argued.
"This is a tool to save additional lives," said Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford. "Use it sparingly, yes, but to take it away will cost us additional lives."
Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, took issue with several characterizations of a potential death penalty as a prosecutor's "tool." He said a prosecutor's promise not to seek death in exchange for a guilty plea holds the potential for as much mischief as confessions manufactured by police tortures in the 1980s that led to videotaping suspect interviews.
"This is not a tool. This is an awesome power," Harmon said. "Can you imagine if you had the power to say, 'You should do what I'm telling you to do, or I will use the full force of the law and the power of the state of Illinois to try to kill you?'"
Several senators, including those who revealed personal encounters with violent crime, explained their evolving positions on the issue, revealing its emotional potency.
Sen. Toi Hutchison, D-Chicago Heights, said she would likely want to see death for anyone who hurt her children, but the state should find life in prison sufficient for evil in this world.
"You deal" with prison, she said, "and then burn in hell for what you did.
Research at Carle Foundation Hospital will preserve the brain following an injury much in the way we'd do the same to a broken arm or ankle.
A year-long study will enable the use of cooling head covers for victims of severe head trauma or stroke. A $700-thousand contract from the Department of Defense will look at how patients respond to these devices. The goal is cooling the brain while the rest of the body is kept at a higher temperature.
Former NASA Scientist Bill Elkins is the founder and chief scientist of WElkins, LLC. His design for the cooling head device is based on those for spacesuits that he designed several years ago. Elkins says by 'hibernating' nerve tissue, that stops oxygen demand.
"It's like changing time, stretching time," he said. "What was the golden hour for irreversable damage now is now 5 or 6 or 7 hours. So it gives the doctors a lot more time to begin the recovery process." For example, in his first study, Elkins says there was a 16-year old girl seriously injured in a car accident. He says she was comatose, and near death. Cooling began about 4 hours after the accident, and Elkins says she was fully recovered within six months.
Carle Neurosurgeon John Wang compared the use of the devices to a child drowning in water, whose brain temperature, and risk of death, is much greater in the summer than the winter. "High temperature is bad for the brain," said Wang. "So then you say, I want to protect the brain, but I don't want to compromise the rest of the body, because the rest of the body likes to be at the physiological temperature, if possible. So then you start to think about a selective mechanism of cooling the brain."
The ultimate goal is to place the head covers in all emergency vehicles. Carle will hold a series of public meetings to let people know more about the research, and solicit community feedback:
Schedule for the Upcoming Meetings: January 25 - Bloomington Public Library, 205 E. Olive Street, 6 p.m.
February 8 -Champaign Public Library, 200 W. Green Street, 7 p.m.
February 9 - Burgess-Osborne Auditorium, 1701 Wabash Avenue, Mattoon, 6 p.m.
February 16 - Danville Public Library, 319 N. Vermilion Street, 6 p.m.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure went to his old school Tuesday morning, and told students at the Centennial High School gym in Champaign what his plans are for the fall.
"I'm here to announce that I will forgo my senior season at the University of Illinois, and enter the 2011 NFL draft," Leshoure announced to cheers from the assembled students.
Leshoure rushed for 17 touchdowns last fall, and set Illinois' single-season rushing record, with 1697 yards, breaking the mark set by Rashard Mendenhall three years earlier. He said he has done everything he can do at the college level, and is ready for professional football. He also said he is not deterred by the possibility that a labor dispute could lead to a player lockout that curtails his first season in the NFL.
"I definitely thought about all those things in my decision, took a long time to think about it, prayed on it," Leshoure said. "I still woke up with the same decision that I made today. So, I'm willing of the risks and I know, you know, what's at stake."
The 6-0, 230-pound Leshoure is projected to be taken anywhere from the first through fourth rounds in the April draft.
Although he is giving up his senior year in college, LeShoure said he still plans to eventually earn his degree in communications. He told the athletes in the Centennial High student assembly to study hard if they want to reach their goals and have a good life beyond the playing field.
"Sports won't be here forever," Leshoure said to students. "Regardless of how good you are and what you think, it won't be forever. You need a backup plan and it starts here at Centennial."
Leshoure's old high school coach was on hand for the announcement. Centennial High School Football Coach Mike McDonnell cited Leshoure's maturity as a high school player.
"I was always impressed with his character and his maturity, because he was always older than what he was," McDonnell said. "I think that's part of his success, because he understood the importance of working out during the off season, getting his grades."
McDonnell credited Leshoure's mother, with instilling her son with self-discipline at an early age.
Illinois football coach Ron Zook also had praise for Leshoure. An article posted on the U of I's Fighting Illini website quoted Zook: "I am extremely proud of how Mikel has matured as a young man and leader for our football team since his arrival at Illinois. He'll be remembered here as one of the greatest running backs in Illinois football history. We hope he has a long and successful NFL career."
Leshoure's announcement comes a day after Illini junior linebacker Martez Wilson said he'll also enter the NFL draft.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)
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