Quinn Won’t Say if He’ll Sign Death Penalty Bill
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.