Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty; 16th State to End Executions

Activists see turning point against capital punishment.

March 9, 2011, 2:08 PM

March 9, 2011— -- In a ceremony behind closed doors today Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill that will make Illinois the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

"I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed," said Quinn in a statement issued after the signing.

"Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it," he said.

It has been 11 years since a death sentence has been carried out in the state. In 2000, then Republican Gov. George Ryan, ordered a moratorium on executions fearing that the Illinois' death penalty system might be at risk of executing the innocent. Ryan had been an ardent supporter of the death penalty, but changed his mind when he saw a rising number of exonerations of death row inmates in Illinois courts.

Foes of the death penalty had urged Quinn to sign a law to abolish the executions completely.

The issue has been politically delicate for Quinn who has always said that he supports the death penalty, but he's been concerned about how the system works.

The state legislature passed the ban in January, and the governor had put off signing it to listen to voices on both sides.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the families of murder victims encouraged the Governor to keep the most severe penalty on the books.

A group of men wrongfully convicted, who were cleared from death row when Ryan issued his moratorium on the death penalty a decade ago, spoke in favor of the ban.

"I think we're on the right side of history here," said Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a Democratic sponsor of the bill. "I appreciate the governor taking the time it took to listen to the other voices out there. We all took time to really look at this and we're standing on the shoulders of other legislators who have inched this thing along."

Illilnois Gov. Pat Quinn Abolishes Death Penalty in Closed Ceremony

Fifteen people remain on death row in Illinois, but Quinn announced he would commute those sentences to life without parole. The new law takes effect July 1.

"This is a turning point "says Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice which advocates for the abolishment of the death penalty. "Illinois is significant because it has had a moratorium on executions for 11 years, convened two study commissions and enacted a series of reforms aimed at fixing the system. But still, exonerations continued, the costs went through the roof and victim's family members were left in limbo. Today sends a message that after all of that effort, the ultimate conclusion of Illinois law makers was that it cannot be made to work."

A part of the bill provides that the funds that are going to be saved by repealing the death penalty are going to be reallocated to services for victim's families and training for law enforcement.

"Illinois is the first state to do something positive for victim's families on public safety with the funds that were previously wasted on the death penalty," said Silberstein.

Nationwide, death penalty sentences have plunged to their lowest levels in the last few years due to a concern of the risk of executing the innocent, the high costs of capital punishment and fears over the method of lethal injection used in each of the 35 states that allow the death penalty.

Texas, which has had the most executions among all the states, has had a dramatic drop from 48 sentences in 2000 to only eight death sentences last year, says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center which opposes the death penalty. California, the state with the largest death row in the country, has not had an execution for over five years.

"Illinois is being watched by the rest of the country because it stopped the death penalty, reviewed it and ultimately chose to abandon it. Other states have been watching Illinois, and are now considering legislation to abolish the death penalty," says Dieter.

Other States Watch Illinois After Death Penalty Abolished

Those states include, Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, Kansas and Florida.

"If these abolition votes continue, and a majority of states abolish the death penalty, then the Supreme Court of the United States might find that there is a consensus, or new standard of decency in the country that rejects the death penalty," he said.

In recent years the Supreme Court has narrowed the death penalty, abolishing it for juveniles and for the mentally retarded.

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