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March 9 2011 | UNITED STATES

USA

Illinois abolishes the death penalty: A great victory of life

 
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The New York Times

Illinois Bans Capital Punishment

By JOHN SCHWARTZ and EMMA G. FITZSIMMONS
Illinois became the 16th state to ban capital punishment as Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday signed an abolition bill that the state legislature passed in January.
“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,” Mr. Quinn said in a statement. “With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”
Mr. Quinn, a Democrat who became governor in 2009 and was elected to a full term in November, said during the 2010 campaign that he supported the death penalty when applied “carefully and fairly,” but added that “I am deeply concerned by the possibility of an innocent person being executed.” He had kept the question of whether he would sign the bill unanswered since it passed on Jan. 11.
In his statement Wednesday, he said that “for me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death,” and one that required “deep personal reflection.”
Those on death row will have their sentences commuted to life sentences without the possibility of parole. The law also dedicates funds to law enforcement and services for victims’ families.
The heated debate over the bill had focused on more than a dozen death row prisoners who were found to have been wrongfully convicted — including one man who came within 50 hours of execution. Lawmakers also debated the costs of imposing the death penalty.
As Mr. Quinn approached his announcement, he was pressured by death penalty supporters, including family members of some victims, and by opponents, including the South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, the anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean and the actor Martin Sheen.
The state’s death penalty machinery had been halted since 2000, when the governor at the time, George Ryan, also called the system “broken” and declared a moratorium on executions. Before leaving office in 2003, Mr. Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row prisoners to life and pardoned four inmates.
Fifteen prisoners have been added to the state’s death row since then. The state has formed commissions to study the death penalty and has made some reforms, but those favoring abolition of the death penalty argued that the system could not be tweaked into fairness.
At a news conference at the state capitol in Springfield, Mr. Quinn said that signing the bill was the most difficult decision he had made as governor. “I have concluded, after looking at all the information that I have received, that it is impossible to create a perfect system — one that is free of all mistakes,” he said.
“Illinois’ experience of trying to fix the death penalty, and finding it can’t be done, sends a real message to other states that are also grappling with the same problems,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, a group that opposes capital punishment. “It’s a real turning point in the conversation about the death penalty in the United States,” she said.
The president of the state senate, John Cullerton, supported the abolition bill and said it was a “historic and solemn day” for Illinois.
But Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that supports the death penalty, called the governor’s action “a double-cross of the voters of Illinois,” since he had stated during the campaign that he favored the death penalty. “If he had honestly told the voters he would sign a repeal bill then, he would not be governor now,” Mr. Scheidegger said, adding that the new law was also “a slap in the face to those seeking justice for their murdered family members.”
Not all family members of victims agreed; dozens of them signed a letter to the legislature supporting the bill. “To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure,” they wrote. “The death penalty is neither,” and the trials and appeals “drag victims’ loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, which often does not result in the intended punishment.” Illinois joins a wave of states that have reconsidered capital punishment. New Jersey abolished the practice in 2007. New Mexico’s legislature ended the death penalty in 2009. New Mexico’s state’s newly elected governor, Susana Martinez, has asked the Legislature to reinstate it, though bills to do so have stalled. Connecticut’s legislature voted to abolish the penalty last year, but the governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, vetoed the measure.
Ronald J. Tabak, a lawyer in New York who has argued death penalty cases, said that legislators were coming to understand that they could vote to abolish the death penalty without losing their next election, so long as they avoid moralistic arguments and focus instead on such factors as accuracy, fairness and cost.
“At least outside of the South, it is not the political death sentence, as often perceived by politicians, to be willing to vote for or be willing to sign into law an abolition bill,” Mr. Tabak said.

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