Illinois Senate Votes to Ban Death Penalty
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.