Members of the Illinois State Senate joined their House-side colleagues yesterday by voting to abolish Illinois' error-riddled death penalty system. The repeal now lands squarely on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.
The State of Illinois' modern-era death penalty system has racked up a galling record since 1977 when the General Assembly brought execution back to the Land of Lincoln. To put it simply: since 1977, the state has put 12 people to death and has exonerated 20 people who were facing the ultimate punishment. This week, legislators took a monumental step in ensuring that kind of breakdown never happens again.
Senate Bill 3539 passed the upper chamber yesterday. The legislation itself is short and simple, getting to the heart of the matter in lines 12 through 15 of the bill: "Beginning on the effective date of this amendatory Act of the 96th General Assembly, notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, the death penalty is abolished and a sentence to death may not be imposed."
"This has been a long time coming," said Rob Warden, the executive director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's Law School.
The bill faced a rocky road to make it through the General Assembly. On January 6, House lawmakers shot it down by just one vote and placed the bill on its calendar for postponed consideration before State Rep. Pat Verschoore (D-Rock Island) and lame duck State Reps. Bob Biggins (R-Elmhurst) and Mike Smith (D-Canton) changed their minds at the 11th hour. That gave SB 3539's chief House sponsor, State Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), the votes she needed. During debate in the Senate, pro-death penalty legislators described murders and other heinous crimes as a way to sway folks on the fence. Nonetheless, the bill passed 32-25.
The abolition legislation now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk. Quinn has indicated support for the death penalty in the past but told reporters today that he would "follow his conscience" on the legislation now before him.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), who helped shepherd the abolition bill through the General Assembly, told Progress Illinois this morning he felt good about the death penalty repeal's chances.
He drew a parallel between some of his legislative colleagues who, like the governor, are not philosophically opposed to the death penalty but were convinced to support abolition because of the death penalty's poor record here.
"My position is that morally, man ought not put himself in the position of God and man ought not to make that decision," Raoul said. "Some people ... generally believe if people commit certain crimes they ought to be eligible to be put to death. However, they could not argue against the history of its application in Illinois and in the country at large."
"In other words, Quinn might say, 'I believe it is OK to put a man to death but I don't think we ought to risk putting an innocent man to death,'" Raoul went on to note. The governor's Office in Chicago did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.
If the governor does approve SB 3539, Warden said the state could expect to realize economic savings. Gone would be the lengthy legal processes for each capital case, with taxpayers expending millions for both the prosecution and the defense over years and even decades. Of the more than 300 people sentenced to death in Illinois since 1977, just one has waived the discretionary legal appeals available to him, according to Warden. Capital cases' appeals structure all-but-guarantees multiple trips into the state and federal court system and even to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since 2000, the state has spent around $120 million from the Illinois Capital Litigation Trust Fund on just 20 capital cases, Warden said. "I can't imagine how any fiscally conservative person can favor this system," he told Progress Illinois. Under SB 3539, unspent or unobligated dollars in the fund would be reallocated to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to pay for services for families of victims of homicide and for law enforcement training.
If Gov. Quinn ratifies SB 3539 -- and pro-abolition advocates have already begun their push to ensure he does exactly that -- the impact could cause legislators in other state capitols to take another look at their own use of the death penalty. Thirty-five states (PDF), including Illinois, currently have the authority to execute people convicted of the most egregious crimes, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
"I think Illinois is a bellweather on this issue and other states will follow Illinois' lead, simply because the death penalty has been such a focus here. We basically ignited the national debate on abolition as a result of of things that happened here leading up to the blanket moratorium," Warden said, referring to ex-Gov. George Ryan's January 2000 decision to halt executions. "This bill is relevant nationally."
And it is now in Quinn's hands.