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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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“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.

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.

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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