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Illinois abolishes death penalty, will other Midwest states follow?

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to make Illinois the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. Questions about the fairness of the death penalty led to a state moratorium in 2000.

By Staff writer / March 9, 2011

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks with reporters in his office at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., in this Jan. 12 file photo. On Wednesday, Quinn signed legislation abolishing the state's death penalty.

Seth Perlman/AP/File

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Chicago

Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty Wednesday after more than a decade spent reexamining the state justice system, its record, and the cost of conducting executions.

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A moratorium on executions had been in place here since 2000, after a string of death-row inmates were exonerated because of prosecutorial misconduct. Citing concerns about the justice system, then-Gov. George Ryan (R) halted all executions in the state pending a review and granted clemency to 164 death-row inmates before leaving office.

At the time, the Illinois moratorium shined a national spotlight on problems in capital-punishment cases and began to shake public confidence in the infallibility of the justice system. With Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signing the law to abolish the death penalty in Illinois Wednesday, capital-punishment foes hope that states with higher execution rates, particularly in the Midwest, will follow Illinois's lead and muster the political will to end it.

“Illinois is going to be the bellwether on the American death penalty. It was the focus since the very beginning of the debate,” says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law in Chicago.

Illinois has executed 12 people since 1976, the year the US Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Missouri, by contrast, put 67 convicted criminals to death during that same time – the most in the Midwest. Since former Governor Ryan left office, Illinois's two subsequent governors have also refused to allow executions to resume.

Many critics of 'difficult decision'

State lawmakers voted in early January to abolish the death penalty. Governor Quinn spent the intervening months considering the issue before signing the bill Wednesday after "deep personal reflection," he said in a statement.

Illinois now replaces New Mexico as the state to abolish the death penalty most recently. The New Mexico legislature and then-Gov. Bill Richardson repealed the death penalty in 2009.

Illinois's move has plenty of critics. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said in early January that state lawmakers should have worked to correct the justice system’s “imperfections” and boosted funding for DNA testing.

“I have met parents, that their child has died, and this person has been out of prison. I mean, how do [the parents] live with that?” he said.

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