After nearly two months of consideration, Gov. Pat Quinn put his mind, and those of supporters for a ban on the death penalty, at ease.
Quinn signed the legislation banning capital punishment in Illinois in a private event March 9 at the capitol, permanently ending executions that were halted 11 years ago when former Gov. George Ryan’s moratorium went into a effect.
The legislation did not affect the 15 men currently facing the death penalty in Illinois prisons, but the governor commuted their sentences to life without parole.
At the heart of his decision, and of the broader debate over the death penalty, was a propensity for inaccuracies in the trials of Illinois defendants eligible for capital punishment.
Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said passing a ban in Illinois was especially critical because of such faults revealed over the years.
“When we have a death penalty, we use it in such a way that’s almost haphazard,” she said. “That’s why you have this convergence of concern in Illinois.
“Illinois had to confront the issue,” Rust-Tierney added. “Can we [continue] a system that can’t tell the difference between the innocent and the guilty?”
Gov. Ryan declared the moratorium in 2000 after a number of death row inmates were found to be innocent of their accused crimes. The permanence of the punishment leaves no room for error, supporters point out; and they’ve long insisted that no conviction could ever be totally certain.
David Protess, the director of the Medill Innocence Project that works on cases of falsely-condemned death row inmates, said the ban’s signing brought a “great day for justice.”
“No innocent person will ever be executed in the state of Illinois,” Protess said. “No person will ever go to death row for a crime they did not commit.”
Quinn’s decision to commute current death row inmates’ sentences to life without parole has angered death penalty supporters. Among their arguments is that real, heinous crimes will go unpunished.
Protess said the victims and their families can take solace in a life sentence versus a death penalty punishment.
“The 15 men who [were] on death row for crimes they did commit will never see a day of freedom,” he said. “It’s a fate worse than death.”
Death penalty opponents note that life sentences cost the state far less than executing someone because of expenses incurred in numerous appeals by death row inmates.
“This can cost $5 to 10 million per execution,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Even a strong supporter of the death penalty might say it’s not worth the $5 million. Hire 100 new police officers instead; that’s what will make society safer.”
Even families of victims may be better served by a life sentence with no parole, Dieter added, since death sentences can be an extremely slow, frustrating process.
“What the victims want is not just the death penalty,” he said. “You’ve got to have an appeal, an additional test. We won’t give them the death penalty because we can’t give them the quick death penalty.”
The Illinois ban is at the forefront of a national trend in states including Kansas, Montana and Colorado looking to end capital punishment. But Dieter warned that an end to capital punishment is far from a certainty.
“The death penalty has been around for 400 years in the United States, so any attempt to get rid of it will be resisted,” he said.