Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty

Gov. Quinn said that the possibility of executing an innocent person made him question the integrity of the system.

By Julianne Hing Mar 10, 2011

On Wednesday Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law abolishing the death penalty in his state, making Illinois the fourth state in four years to outlaw capital punishment, and the 16th state in the U.S. to do so. Quinn also commuted the sentences of 15 people on death row, Politico reported. They will now serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history," Quinn said at the signing ceremony. "I think it’s the right and just thing to abolish the death penalty."

Wednesday’s signing capped off decades of organizing and activism from murder victims’ families, former death row inmates who had since been cleared of their crimes and law enforcement officials.

Quinn said that ultimately, the possibility of executing an innocent person made him question the integrity of the system. The last time Illinois executed a person was in 1999. In 2000 then-Gov. George Ryan called for a moratorium on executions after a man named Anthony Porter was exonerated with the help of journalism students and their professor at Northwestern University’s Innocence Project who used DNA evidence to prove his innocence 50 hours before he was set to be killed.

"For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death," Quinn wrote in his statement. "This was not a decision to be made lightly or a decision that I came to without deep personal reflection."

Quinn also said that the death penalty was not uniformly applied. Prosecutors in one county would call for it while prosecutors for similar crimes in other counties would not. Quinn also said he was concerned that the death penalty was disproportionately applied to poor people and people of color. Indeed, a defendant’s race, and that of the murder victim, are large determinants of whether or not they’ll be convicted and sentenced with the death penalty.

New Mexico, New Jersey and New York have all abolished the death penalty in the last four years.

Quinn’s decision was not popular with everyone, though. Murder victims’ families said the death penalty was the only consolation they could hope for after losing loved ones to terrible deaths. Those in favor of protecting the death penalty, like chief of the capital litigation task force for the Cook County state attorney’s office James McKay, said that vote counts in murder trials showed that the death penalty was still popular. McKay also said that keeping the death penalty might prove to be less costly than abolishing it, the Chicago Tribune reported.

"These murder trials don’t go away just because the death penalty won’t be a sentencing option," McKay told the Chicago Tribune. "With the death penalty off the table, there’ll be even more trials. There’ll be no incentive to plead guilty. I do not believe for one second that taking the death penalty off the table will save the state of Illinois any money whatsoever."

The Springfield Journal-Register profiled the people whose sentences were commuted by Gov. Quinn yesterday.