By SETH GOLDSTEIN AND ANDREW HARMON, Medill News Service
In February a Cook County jury found Paul Runge, 36, guilty of raping and murdering a North West Side woman and her 11-year-old daughter. After binding them with duct tape and raping them, Runge slit their throats and set their bodies on fire.
If a criminal court judge approves the sentence, Runge will become the eighth man to sit on death row since former Gov. George Ryan commuted 167 death sentences in 2003.
Critics say before any of the condemned men is placed on the lethal injection table at Pontiac Correctional Center, the state’s death penalty process must be thoroughly overhauled.
But as Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine sees it, the people of Illinois have a simple choice: either lift the death penalty moratorium or abolish state executions altogether.
“It is wrong to have the death penalty on the books, to have it there in theory, but for it to have no presence in reality,” said Devine during a recent speech to members of the Union League Club of Chicago. “I will follow the law, but at the same time the legislature has to decide whether we’re going to have a death penalty or not.”
It has been six years since Ryan suspended executions and created a commission to reform capital punishment in Illinois. The death penalty still exists, however, and seven men have been sentenced to die.
Meanwhile, the legislature has yet to come up with a revised law incorporating suggested capital punishment reforms that will please Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Only the governor has the authority to lift the moratorium.
Devine would also like to see it lifted, having authorized his assistants to seek the death penalty for Runge. For Devine, Runge is “the face of the death penalty.”
The pros and cons
Anti death penalty advocates point out that 13 death row inmates were wrongfully convicted in Illinois. They say there are unresolved questions on why some convicted murderers are sentenced to die while others are spared.
They note, for example, that those who kill white victims are more likely to be executed.
“The system is still incredibly arbitrary,” said Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Gov. Blagojevich, who supports the death penalty in some instances, has said he would not lift the moratorium until reforms are in place ensuring no innocent persons sent to death row or executed.
Following his January 2000 decision to halt all executions in the state, former Gov. Ryan created the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment. Commission members, who include state’s attorneys, public defenders, judges and the best-selling legal novelist Scott Turow, were appointed to evaluate what the former governor called “a broken capital punishment process.”
In 2002, the commission released a report that contained 85 recommendations for reform. The report concluded that wrongful convictions often resulted from cases that lacked solid physical evidence, or hinged on the uncorroborated testimony of so-called “jailhouse snitches,” inmates who stood to gain by implicating others in crimes.
In response to the report, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee Act in 2003. The act created a panel to oversee that reforms were made in the criminal justice system. The committee will release its final annual report in 2008.
Committee Chairman and former U.S. Attorney Tom Sullivan said the General Assembly approved only one-third of the recommendations. They include electronically recording all police interrogations in homicide cases, holding a pretrial hearing to determine if an inmate’s testimony is reliable in court and not seeking the death penalty when a defendant’s conviction is based on the testimony of only one witness.
But the legislature refused to pass all recommendations. Sullivan said he is “upset” that state politicians cherry-picked the reforms they wanted to enact.
“You can’t just pick and choose which reforms you want to use at your pleasure,” Sullivan said. “The committee recommended 85 reforms and I believe that most of them, if not all, should be implemented in order to help fix the death penalty process in Illinois.”
The rejected reforms included forming a statewide panel to review death sentences and reducing the number of death penalty eligibility requirements from 21 to five.
Although the commission found no evidence that a suspect’s race determined whether he lives or dies, a convicted murderer is more likely to receive a death sentence if his victims are white.
“Which is perhaps more insidious, to say that because I’m a middle-class white person, it’s more important that my death needs to be avenged,” Bohman said.
After a jury on Feb. 27, recommended the death penalty for Runge, Devine held a press conference lauding the jury’s decision. But Bohman criticized Devine for using Runge’s case to rally support for lifting the moratorium.
“Devine is trying to play a whole emotion-driven game,” Bohman said. “He’s used these heinous murders committed by Runge, which appeals to the public’s sense of fear. But it’s imperative that reforms to the death penalty continue without an appeal to emotion in order to circumvent future wrongful convictions.”
Devine said Runge’s crimes were the perfect examples of when prosecutors should seek the death penalty.
“What other case are we supposed to use?” Devine said. “All of these cases are heinous. Don’t say that someone is trying to skew the debate because they use Paul Runge as an example.”
Runge has also been charged with the rapes and murders of five other women between 1995 and 1997 in Cook and DuPage Counties. Evidence of each of these crimes was presented during the death penalty hearing.
Bernie Murray, the assistant state’s attorney who prosecuted Runge, said he and his colleagues evaluated every aspect of Runge’s alleged crimes to determine whether or not to seek the death penalty. After completing a six-year investigation into the murders, Murray said he was sure that Runge was the prototype for a death penalty candidate.
“Paul Runge has redefined the death penalty in Cook County,” Murray said. “It’s our opinion that the moratorium be lifted now because in seven-to-10 years, when the appeals process is over, we want to know that Runge faces the sentence that a jury of his peers chose for him.”
But if the moratorium continues, Runge’s death sentence will unofficially turn into a life sentence. For Ramon Rivera, the father of Yolanda Gutierrez , who, along with her daughter Jessica Muniz, was brutally murdered, there will be no satisfaction until he is put to death.
“I am not a hateful person, but I hope he burns in hell for what he did to my daughter and granddaughter.” Rivera said.