The death penalty has been a topic of hot debate for years. Commentator Matt Andres discusses some recent events and a court ruling that may play a significant role in the use of the death penalty in the future. Here's this week's Legal Issues in the News.
From AP - News Local/State - July 05, 2014 7:27 AM
It's been exactly one year since Illinois got rid of the death penalty. But there are still questions about the fairness of the state's criminal justice system.
When Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law abolishing the death penalty, he said capital cases were too prone to error.
"We have tried over and over again to come up with a perfect system that makes no mistakes with respect to carrying out the death penalty," Quinn said. "We have found over and over again mistakes have been made."
People who worked for years to eliminate capital punishment are happy it's gone. But they say the system is still far from perfect. With death off the table, the state stopped paying for indigent defendants to have extra attorneys and expert witnesses at trial.
"The odds of someone being wrongfully convicted certainly have gone up, because not as much money is being put into the cases," said John Hanlon, the legal director of the Downstate Innocence Project. "Some might argue that a natural life sentence is just about as bad as a death sentence, because you spend the rest of your life in prison."
Hanlon used to represent defendants in capital cases. He said in better economic times, he hopes the legislature would consider spending to even the playing field for defendants facing life.
Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst ) has filed several bills to reinstate the death penalty. Reboletti, who is a former prosecutor. said some crimes are so heinous, they deserve the ultimate punishment.
"We had people on death row that murdered multiple victims," Reboletti said. "Murdered children. Home invaded and then murdered people. Raped them, murdered. And the sentence that's most appropriate -- is death."
Last year Reboletti tried to put the death penalty to a statewide referendum. That and a measure to reinstate it were approved in committee and made it onto the House floor, but they were never called for a vote.
This year he has not had as much success: Reboletti's bill to reinstate the death penalty hasn't even been assigned to a committee.
From WILL - Legal Issues In the News - April 04, 2011 7:40 AM
A former death row inmate is applauding Governor Pat Quinn's decision to abolish the death penalty for a couple of reasons.
Randy Steidl spent 12 years on death row, and 17 total years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of a double-murder in Paris, Illinois. Since his release, Steidl has been an active opponent of capital punishment, citing irreversible errors made in the justice system, but he said life without parole is ultimate punishment.
"Five minutes on that gurney, and your suffering is over with," Steidl said. "I believe if you really want to punish somebody, you put them in cage for the rest of their life where they can think about the crimes they committed. And when they die, they can burn in hell. And you don't risk the possibility of executing an innocent person."
Steidl said even if prosecutors do everything by the book, there's still the possibility of them making a mistake. And as for his own case, Steidl said there are people who are more interested in winning than justice.
Illinois abolished the death penalty Wednesday, more than a decade after the state imposed a moratorium on executions out of concern that innocent people could be put to death by a justice system that had wrongly condemned 13 men.
Gov. Pat Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 inmates remaining on death row. They will now serve life in prison with no hope of parole.
State lawmakers voted in January to abandon capital punishment, and Quinn spent two months reflecting on the issue, speaking with prosecutors, crime victims' families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders. He called it the "most difficult decision" he has made as governor.
"We have found over and over again: Mistakes have been made. Innocent people have been freed. It's not possible to create a perfect, mistake-free death penalty system," Quinn said after signing the legislation.
Illinois will join 15 other states that have done away with executions.
The executive director of a national group that studies capital punishment said Illinois' move sets it apart from other states that have eliminated the death penalty because many of those places rarely used it.
"Illinois stands out because it was a state that used it, reconsidered it and now rejected it," said Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, in Washington.
Prosecutors and some victims' families had urged Quinn to veto the measure.
The governor offered words of consolation to those who had lost loved ones to violence, saying that the "family of Illinois" was with them. He said he understands victims will never be healed.
Illinois' moratorium goes back to 2000, when then-Republican Gov. George Ryan made international headlines by suspending executions. Ryan acted after years of growing doubts about the state's capital-punishment system, which was famously called into question in the 1990s, after courts concluded that 13 men had been wrongly condemned.
Shortly before leaving office in 2003, Ryan also cleared death row, commuting the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison.
Illinois' last execution was in 1999.
Quinn promised to commute the sentence of anyone else who might be condemned before the law takes effect on July 1.
New York and New Jersey did so in 2007. New Mexico followed in 2009, although new Republican Gov. Susana Martinez wants to reinstate the death penalty.
Anti-death penalty activists said other states have looked to Illinois as a leader on the issue ever since the moratorium began.
"This is a very significant action on the governor's part," said Mike Farrell, an actor best known for his role on the hit television show "M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H" and a longtime activist who is now the president of the board of directors of Death Penalty Focus in California.
"This is a domino in one sense, but it's a significant one."
Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, agreed, saying Illinois' action "shows the national momentum towards repealing the death penalty."
As Illinois governor in the late 1970s, Republican James Thompson signed a law reinstating the death penalty and was an ardent supporter of capital punishment for decades.
"But for the last several years, I began to have my doubts," he said Wednesday.
Thompson said he came to believe the death penalty did not deter would-be murderers and that the risk of executing a single innocent person outweighed any potential benefits.
Quinn consulted with retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and met with Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for the movie "Dead Man Walking."
A Chicago woman whose teenage son was gunned down in 2006 said she was disappointed in Quinn's decision - a move, she said, that victims' relatives tried to talk him out of a few weeks ago.
Pam Bosley said nobody is in custody in her son's death, but whoever killed him does not deserve to live.
"I don't want them to breathe the air that I breathe," said Bosley, whose 18-year-old son, Terrell Bosley, was killed in front of a church on Chicago's South Side.
Bill Sloop, a truck driver from Carthage, said he was saddened to think that taxpayers would have to continue feeding, clothing and care for Daniel Ramsey, the death row prisoner who killed his 12-year-old daughter and wounded her older sister in a 1996 shooting spree.
Quinn "shouldn't have done what he did," Sloop said.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan appealed directly to Quinn to veto the bill, as did several county prosecutors and victims' families. They said safeguards, including videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence, were in place to prevent innocent people from being wrongly executed.
Madigan declined to comment on Quinn's decision.
But death penalty opponents argued that there was still no guarantee that an innocent person couldn't be put to death. Quinn's lieutenant governor, Sheila Simon, herself a former prosecutor, urged him to sign the bill.
Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated. The last execution was Andrew Kokoraleis on March 17, 1999. At the time, the average length of stay on death row was 13 years.
Kokoraleis, convicted of mutilating and murdering a 21-year-old woman, was put to death by lethal injection.
Gov. Pat Quinn says he will act this week on a bill that would abolish executions in Illinois.
Quinn said Monday that he's "going to act" this week, but not Tuesday. He said there's still information he wants to read and research he wants to do before acting on the legislation.
The legislation reaches Quinn after former Gov. George Ryan dramatically cleared the state's death row in 2000.
Quinn has said his decision will be based on his conscience. He has spent two months consulting with prosecutors, murder victims' families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders as he weighs his options.
Illinois is one of 35 states to have the death penalty. The state currently does not carry out executions because of the 2000 moratorium.
From AP - News Headlines - January 12, 2011 2:38 PM
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.
From WILL - Legal Issues In the News - June 11, 2001 12:37 PM