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Illinois Governor Signs Bill Banning Death Penalty, Commutes All Death Sentences

by Matt Clarke

On March 9, 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation banning the death penalty for state crimes in Illinois. He also commuted the sentences of the state’s 15 death row prisoners to life without the possibility of parole. All but one of those prisoners have since been moved to maximum-security facilities. One is in a medium-security prison that includes a mental health facility. Meanwhile, death row has been converted into a special maximum-security unit for prisoners leaving the supermax Tamms Correctional Center.

Before signing the legislation banning capital punishment in Illinois, Quinn debated the issue at length. “For me, it was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death,” he wrote in his signing statement. “This was not a decision to be made lightly, or a decision that I came to without deep personal reflection.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it.
With our broken system, we cannot ensure that justice is achieved in every case.

“For the same reason, I have also decided to commute the sentences of those currently on death row to natural life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole or release.”
Governor Quinn further established a trust fund to support families of murder victims and assist local police departments in preventing murders.

Surrounding Quinn in his Capitol office when he signed the legislation were long-term opponents of the death penalty. They included the bill’s lead sponsors, Rep. Karen Yarbrough and Sen. Kwame Raoul, as well as Senate President John Cullerton, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn and Lt. Governor Sheila Simon (a former prosecutor), all Democrats. Anti-death penalty luminaries such as Sister Helen Prejean, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Pope had encouraged Quinn to sign the legislation. Prosecutors, the state Attorney General and some family members of murder victims had urged the governor not to sign. One state attorney called the ban on capital punishment a “victory for murderers.”

The fatal flaws in Illinois’ capital punishment system were exposed over a decade ago when then-Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after thirteen death row prisoners were found to be actually innocent. [See: PLN, July 2003, p.25].
Since then, another 7 prisoners sentenced to death in Illinois have been exonerated. The moratorium was honored by Ryan’s successors, Governors Rod Blagojevich and Quinn, even as prosecutors voiced their opposition and scrambled to refill the empty cells on death row.

An investigative series by the Chicago Tribune published in 1999 examined 300 death penalty cases in Illinois and exposed incompetence, error and bias in many capital cases. The series noted that at least 46 death row prisoners were sentenced to death based on the testimony of jailhouse informants, at least 33 had been represented by attorneys who were suspended or disbarred, and at least 35 were blacks whose cases were decided by all-white juries. Such inequities prompted Governor Ryan to commute the sentences of 167 death row prisoners to life and issue four pardons shortly before leaving office in January 2003.

The capital punishment debacle also prompted President Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, to work on legislation to reform certain procedures in death penalty cases such as mandating the taping of police interrogations. Governor Quinn had been elected under a campaign promise to continue the moratorium on the death penalty, while voicing support for capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.

“No state had tried harder to fix its death penalty system, but after 10 years it became patently clear that it was broken beyond repair,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The legislation ending capital punishment in Illinois took effect on July 1, 2011; the last execution in the state occurred in 1999. Illinois joins 15 other states that do not have the death penalty, plus the District of Columbia.

Sources: Associated Press, Chicago Tribune,,, Huffington Post, CBS Chicago

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