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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.

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Likewise, the vote to end the death penalty did not sit well with Thomas Nicarico, whose daughter, Jeanine, was killed in 1983 when she was 10. Brian Dugan, convicted of her murder, was on death row until Wednesday, when Quinn commuted the sentences of the 15 remaining inmates on death row. Their terms are now life in prison without the possibility of parole or release.

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Mr. Nicarico told WLS-AM radio the week after the state vote that abolishing capital punishment is a “cop out.” Dugan "earned the most severe punishment the state can give. And now the state is taking it away,” he said.

Some 56 percent of state residents say the death penalty should be reinstated, according to a poll released Oct. 16 by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.

The political turning point: 1998

The political turning point in the capital-punishment debate in Illinois dates to November 1998, during an inaugural national conference at Northwestern University that featured 30 people from across the US who had been exonerated of capital crimes – a consequence of the work of volunteer defense attorneys, journalism students, and improved scientific measures such as DNA testing.

The conference “was the first time the media began to perceive that wrongful convictions were really a systemic problem,” says Mr. Warden.

At the time of the conference, nine death-row convictions had already been overturned in Illinois because of prosecutorial misconduct. More inmates were exonerated in 1999. Ryan declared the moratorium the next year.

Ryan's action attracted so much attention because it was founded on the relatively large number of people who had been proved innocent by independent groups, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes capital punishment. He cites work by a Northwestern University journalism class that resulted in the release of Anthony Porter, the state’s 10th exonerated prisoner, in 1999.

“It was just a powerful story that was coming out of Illinois. These were 13 people [exonerated] in one state. It was a breakthrough because of a crisis that was unique,” he says.

Death-penalty opponents often argue their case on economic grounds. Executions are costly not only to litigate, but also to settle wrongful conviction cases, they note. Illinois has drawn down its special trust fund by more than $100 million since 2003 to pay investigative and forensic costs for defense attorneys in capital-punishment cases, reports the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The death penalty system was costing the [Illinois] taxpayers,” says Warden. “We have known for years death-penalty cases are vastly more expensive than non-death-penalty cases. But [because of Illinois's current budget woes], it does have a new and greater salience than it has before.”

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