By William Fisher
After months of nail-biting, opponents of capital punishment were breathing easier today.
Yesterday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, took the final step in ending the death penalty and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole.
The law also requires that state funds used for the death penalty be transferred to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement.
The ban on capital punishment comes after an eleven-year moratorium on
executions declared by former Republican Governor George Ryan, and makes Illinois the 16th state to repeal the death penalty. It also marks the lowest number of states with the death penalty in more than thirty years.
"The Illinois repeal is an indication of a growing national trend toward alternatives to the death penalty, and an increased focus on murder victims' families and the prevention of crime," said Richard Dieter, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"In light of our current economic climate, the public has increasingly recognized that resources used for the death penalty could be diverted to higher budgetary priorities, such as law enforcement and victims’ services."
“This is a turning point,” said Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA (EJUSA), a national organization that worked with state partners on the repeal. EJUSA worked on the ground in Illinois as a national partner to the repeal campaign.
“Illinois had a moratorium for ten years, two study commissions, and a series of reforms in an effort to create a death penalty that works,” Silberstein said. “Illinois tried harder than most to create a fair, accurate, and effective death penalty. If they couldn’t get it right, then no state can,” Silberstein concluded.
Many murder victims’ families were among the strongest supporters of the Illinois repeal. In a letter to the Illinois General Assembly, murder victims' families wrote, "A legal system that wasn’t bogged down with committing tremendous resources on capital cases could prosecute and sentence countless other crimes and take dangerous people off the streets before they commit murder. Dollars saved could be put toward counseling for victims of crime or other services we desperately need as we attempt to get on with our lives."
The letter was signed by more than 30 individuals who had loved ones murdered in Illinois.
The high costs of the death penalty were influential in the passage of the repeal. Conservative Republican Senator Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington said, "We have spent over $100 million of taxpayer money defending and prosecuting death row cases. The death penalty does not make our society safer, I believe. It has been an ineffective and expensive use of our scarce resources.”
In the last few months, the death penalty has been under scrutiny in other states as well. Days after the Illinois General Assembly voted for the repeal, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a Republican state legislator played an influential role in shaping the state’s current death penalty statute, stated: “I have concluded that it is exceedingly difficult for this statute to be administered in a fair and just way.”
He said Republican Gov. [John] Kasich and the governors after him, I believe, need to consider commuting all of those sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and I think it's time for Ohio to at least entertain the discussion of whether or not we are well served by having a death penalty."
Across the country, use of the death penalty is declining as states are using alternative punishments like life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Death sentences in the United States have dropped by over 60% since the mid-90s. A recent poll conducted by Lake Research Partners showed that 61% of U.S. voters chose various alternative sentences over the death penalty as the punishment for murder. The same poll also listed the death penalty last in a list of priorities for state spending.
Since 1976, Illinois has carried out 12 executions. In the same period, 20 inmates have been exonerated from the state’s death row, the second highest number in the United States. In 2003, three years after the moratorium was imposed, Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation, reducing the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life and pardoning four inmates.
Since then, Illinois has had two different commissions to study the death penalty and has implemented some reforms, yet continues to face an error-prone and costly system. In the meantime, use of the death penalty has declined sharply in Illinois. In the 1990s, the state averaged over 10 death sentences a year. In 2009 and 2010, the state imposed only one death sentence each year.
Illinois is the fourth state in the last four years to abandon the death penalty.
In 2000, former Gov. George Ryan, a Democrat, declared a moratorium on executions because of a series of deeply flawed trials that ended in the execution of innocent inmates.
Three years later, Ryan commuted 167 death row felons to life terms. At that time he urged the legislature to take a serious look at state-sanctioned death.
Meanwhile, Illinois enacted a number of reforms, including mandatory taping of interviews with homicide suspects. That reform was triggered by widespread stories of torture by Chicago police.
In an editorial, The New York Times noted that “other vital reforms to clean up forensic lab abuses and stage-managed witness identifications were rejected. And for all the official study, caution and reforms of the past decade, the Legislature found the system still riddled with risk and doubt.”
Until yesterday, there were 15 inmates on death row in Illinois and prosecutors were continuing to seek capital punishment. Recently, DNA evidence resulted in the exoneration of two men on death row.
Last fall, Governor Quinn took the position of supporting the moratorium as well as capital punishment if it were “applied carefully and fairly.” He changed his mind based on Illinois’s own experience, which has shown why the death penalty cannot be carried out “carefully and fairly.”
New Mexico and New Jersey voted to abolish the death penalty in 2009 and 2007, respectively. New York’s death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004, and the last person was removed from death row in 2007. More states are expected to introduce legislation to repeal the death penalty in 2011, including possibly Connecticut, Kansas and Maryland.
In the U.S., executions in 2010 were down 12 percent from the preceding year. The nation had 46 executions in 2010, down from 52 in 2009. This year's total was less than half of that in 1999.
Texas continues to lead the U.S. but its 17 executions this year represent a 29 percent drop from 2009. Ohio, which executed eight men in 2010, ranks second to Texas in the number of executions.
Behind Ohio, four states - Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia - each had three executions. Only 12 states had any executions.
"Whether it's concerns about the high costs of the death penalty at a time when budgets are being slashed, the risks of executing the innocent, unfairness, or other reasons, the nation continued to move away from the death penalty in 2010," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Outside the U.S., many advanced nations – including all those in the European Union – have placed a total ban on capital punishment. China and Iran are far and away the world’s execution leaders.