IL Lawmakers Consider Abolishing the Death Penalty

December 01, 2010

Legislation to abolish the death penalty will be put on hold until the Senate and House return for the lame-duck session in January.

Former Governor George Ryan suspended executions in the state about a decade ago, and since then no prisoner has been put to death. Randy Steidl is one of 20 people exonerated from death row in Illinois. He was released from prison after having been wrongly convicted of the 1986 murders of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads of Paris, Il. He spent 17 years in prison, 12 of which were on death row.

"As harsh as death row was, I found that five and a half years of life without parole that I did after death row was far harsher," Steidl said. "Let them wake up every morning and think about the crimes they committed. That's punishment, and you don't risk the possibility of executing an innocent person."

Opponents of abolishing the death penalty in Illinois say the issue is too important to decide during the time left in the legislative veto session. Earlier this week, the Illinois House committee narrowly recommending abolishing the death penalty with a judiciary panel voting 4-3 today to send the abolition legislation to the House floor.

The first person in the United States exonerated from death row because of DNA evidence shared his story Wednesday on the University of Illinois campus as part of a ceremony commemorating a federal grant for DNA testing. Kirk Bloodsworth, a former marine who now lives in Idaho, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1984 rape and murder of a Maryland girl, but he was later released.

"If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal history," Bloodsworth said, referring to his wrongful conviction. "It can happen to anyone in the state of Illinois, and it's going to continue to do so."

A $687,448 federal grant named in Bloodsworth's honor from the U.S. Department of Justice will help the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project (DIIP) clear more wrongfully convicted inmates. The group's director, Larry Golden, said with the grant money, the innocence project will sift through 25 to 30 cases over the next year and a half that could be solved through DNA testing. He also said DIIP will be able to hire a legal director, and recruit law students at Southern Illinois University and the University of Illinois to review each case.

"Every one of these cases is very, very demanding," Golden said. "The most success that could occur with innocence projects like ours is if we could work ourselves out of business and there weren't cases out there that we would have to look at."

But Golden said as long as there is a demand to study cases in which someone was wrongfully convicted of a crime, his organization will continue its investigations. Golden acknowledged that while his group usually does not come in contact with death penalty cases, he said more than half of the nation's exonerated cases deal with people who were on death row.

"Do we as a society want to sentence people to death when we know there's a good possibility that a number of those people are going to be innocent?" he said. "It raises some big questions about whether that's good and/or moral public policy.

Story source: WILL