Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty

Illinois became the 16th state to abolish capital punishment today. That's far too few.

Today, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty:

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn today signed into law a historic ban on the death penalty in Illinois and commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life without parole.

The governor said he followed his conscience. He said he believed in signing the bill he also should “abolish the death penalty for everyone,” including those already on death row.

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” Quinn told reporters afterward. “I think it’s the right, just thing to abolish the death penalty.”

Quinn signed the legislation during a private ceremony in his Capitol office surrounded by longtime opponents of capital punishment in a state where flaws in the process led to the exoneration of numerous people sentenced to death.

“For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death,” Quinn 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,” Quinn wrote. “With our broken system, we cannot ensure 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,” the governor wrote.

(…)

The ban comes about 11 years after then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after 13 condemned inmates were cleared since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Ryan, a Republican, cited a Tribune investigative series that examined each of the state’s nearly 300 capital cases and exposed how bias, error and incompetence undermined many of them.

False conviction issues aren’t just limited to Illinois. The Innocence Project has been involved in nearly 300 post-conviction exonerations based on DNA evidence, including nearly two dozen cases where a convict was sitting on death row at the time of his conviction.  Moreover, there’s at least one case on record where it now seems fairly apparent that the State of Texas executed a man for a crime that he didn’t commit.

There was a time when I was a supporter, albeit a reluctant one, of capital punishment, but that time has come to an end. For one thing,  I’ve come to the general conclusion that the state should not have the power to take anyone’s life, even when they’ve committed a violent and horrible crime. Additionally, ever since the advent of DNA evidence, we’ve seen far too many instances of innocent men imprisoned for crimes that they clearly did not commit to think that it hasn’t happened in a capital punishment case.  Finally, my own professional interaction with the criminal justice system on a regular basis made it clear to me fairly early on that the system was far too imperfect to trust it with the power of life and death, and this is especially true when a defendant facing a death sentence is forced to accept court-appointed counsel that lacks both the experience and the resources that a private-hired attorney would. The question of whether you live or die shouldn’t depend on whether or not you’re rich enough to hire a good lawyer, but, far too often, it does.

Illinois has taken the right step here. Let’s hope that more states follow their lead.

 

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Or maybe more stringent guidelines are needed for imposing the death penalty. There are some crimes too heinous for life in prison wihtout possibility of parole. Just abolishing the death penalty seems to be a zero tolerance, i.e., refusing to exercise judgment, approach. Just another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.




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  2. Ben says:

    Charles, when a man or woman’s life hangs in the balance, good isn’t good enough. We need to be perfect, or not do it at all.




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  3. Ben, lives hang in the balance a lot more often in a lot more situations than just at sentencing of a murderer after a conviction.

    Also, one rationale always offered for the death penalty is its effectiveness as a deterrent. Of course, justice delayed is justice denied. Just ask Charlie Manson.




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  4. matt b says:

    There are some crimes too heinous for life in prison wihtout possibility of parole.

    Which ones were you thinking Charles? An how many of them are committed on a regular basis?

    Ultimately, all the evidence points to the fact that the system cannot be applied fairly in all cases. It’s pretty clear that if some cases had been tried with a different defense attorney (or even in another state) a different trial or sentencing outcome most likely would have been reached.

    Simply put, we have killed people who did not commit[*] the crimes they were accused of.

    I just don’t see how the “benefits” (which are exactly what btw?) of the death penalty outweigh these fundamental and systemic problems. Is the death penalty such an important aspect of our society that we need to continue to unjustly put people to death?

    *- note that this isn’t about those people being “innocent” as a whole, that’s not the right point of judgment — being a “bad” person is not, by itself, a justification for an improper conviction/death.




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  5. Ben says:

    Charles,
    There are very few situations where a life is literally in the balance as much as when we are decided as a state to actively put someone to death. In that specific case, we better be DAMNED sure we have the right guy. And often, we’re not that sure. As the innocence project has demonstrated.




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  6. An Interested Party says:

    Also, one rationale always offered for the death penalty is its effectiveness as a deterrent.

    A weak rationale, as it hasn’t proved to be a very effective deterrent…




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  7. matt b says:

    one rationale always offered for the death penalty is its effectiveness as a deterrent.

    Unfortunately, statistical analysis comes down on both sides of the issue, depending on fact sets.

    Or put another way (ht: http://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000983)

    “…deterrence theory seems less and less central to the debate, even as it is understood currently. Most abolitionists and retentionists seem committed to their positions regardless of the evidence on deterrence. Deterrence seems to be an argument added to bolster a position already taken.”

    (from: Donald L. Beschle, LLM, Professor of Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, in a Jan. 1997 William and Mary Law Review essay titled “What’s Guilt (or Deterrence) Got to Do With It? The Death Penalty, Ritual, and Mimetic Violence.”)

    This is fundamentally a cultural issue…




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  8. Alan says:

    My analysis of htis issue has evolved. I continue to think that the state has the power to take a man’s life, under certain circumstances and after due process.

    However, I also believe that abolition of the death penalty is the better policy choice.




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  9. BTemp91 says:

    Though this is an interesting argument, I have to disagree with the points made about replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole. For these inmates to be put on death row must mean they have committed a crime of, most likely, taking the life of another person. I believe it is not violating a person’s human rights by sentencing them to death if they have killed someone.




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  10. george says:

    Or maybe more stringent guidelines are needed for imposing the death penalty. There are some crimes too heinous for life in prison wihtout possibility of parole. Just abolishing the death penalty seems to be a zero tolerance, i.e., refusing to exercise judgment, approach. Just another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    Sure, except its even more heinous for a gov’t to execute an innocent person – and its pretty clear that the justice system doesn’t have a 100% record in convicting only the truly guilty. The possibility of error is always there, hence life imprisonment.




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  11. matt b says:

    For these inmates to be put on death row must mean they have committed a crime of, most likely, taking the life of another person.

    *sigh* you completely missed the point…

    (1) Just because someone committed a crime does not mean that they deserve to be killed by the state. This is the old argument that we shouldn’t care about criminals because they are criminals. The overall moral quality of an individual should have nothing to do with the question of whether or not they should be put to death. This leads to…

    (2) Really, only two questions matter in this issue of the death penalty:

    Q1. Can we determine to 100% certainty that the defendant is guilt of the crime? There’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that this is *rarely* the case — especially as new information can surface after trial. This, by itself, is a strong argument against the death penalty). But lets go onto Q2.

    Q2. Can we be 100% certain that the person was treated “fairly” by the system and received a “fair” trial (i.e. no misconduct – as opposed to evidence – on the part of police, state, or courts which by itself, or in aggregate, swayed the decision to guilty). Again, there’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest that isn’t the case either.

    Given the difficulty getting hard yes’s to Q1 and Q2, I don’t think one can make a moral argument for the death penalty. Or if one does, one must accept that they are *necessarily* advocating that we must also accept the reality that people will be executed who did not commit the crimes they are being killed for. It doesn’t matter if we try our best to prevent it. The overwhelming evidence is that maintaining this system means that people will be killed for crimes they did no commit.




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  12. matt b says:

    Clarifying point 1 — Just because someone committed crime X does not mean they committed crime Y. And if the death sentence is for crime Y, you are killing a person for a crime they did not commit.

    One other point – often lost with excessive law and order types – even if the individual committed crime Y, if their conviction was based in any significant part on misconduct, then they should not be executed. This does not mean that they should go free. Nor does it prevent a re-trial.

    The issue here is not protecting or convicting any individual — its maintaining a system that can be trusted, and in doing that the rights of all individuals are protected. Bolt put it best in “A Man for all Seasons”:

    Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.




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  13. Scott says:

    Along with the other good reasons to oppose the death penalty already mentioned there is the added expense, at least a million dollars per case.




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  14. PD Shaw says:

    I oppose the death penalty for moral reasons, but I think it should be pointed out that Illinois did enact a number of reforms, including requiring attorneys on death cases to be specially certified and trained, full and mutual utilization of DNA evidence, and prevention of death penalty based upon uncorroborated testimony from snitches.

    These reforms were implemented in 2003, but the moratorium was never lifted, so we really don’t know their effectiveness.




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  15. Brett says:

    Also, one rationale always offered for the death penalty is its effectiveness as a deterrent.

    Is it, though? Matt B pointed out that the evidence for it being so is mixed.

    Moreover, as Mark Kleiman over at RBC has pointed out, much of the evidence on punishment that has emerged over the years is that the swiftness and surety of punishment are extremely important. The death penalty usually has neither. It’s a relatively rare punishment, and it usually takes years – sometimes decades – to get used, even when the perpetrator is very obviously guilty. Look at Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), who was charged in 1997, but not executed until 2001.




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  16. matt b, treason, child molestation, mass/serial murderers, and others that there’s little point in discussing if you won’t accept those.

    an interested party, weak is not the same as non-existent.

    anyone, please don’t assume or imply that I or anyone else advoctaes innocent people being put to death or that we find it acceptable. IMHO, beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t sufficient to support the death penalty in sentencing, though it may be perfectly acceptable for determining guilt. Is there any doubt whatsoever regarding the guilt of, say, Jeffrey Dahmer? Or that he shouldn’t get the death penalty because it’s possible someone else did it? Or how about Jared Loughner?




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  17. Brett, as I said, justice delayed is justice denied. So maybe it is effective as a deterrent, unless some opposed to it decide to game the system to make it difficult to be effective by the use of delaying tactics so that it can then be argued that it isn’t a deterrent at all. We all do love our self-licking ice cream cones.




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  18. mantis says:

    Very proud of my state this year. First we pass civil unions, now the death penalty is abolished. It’s great to live in Illinois.




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  19. One more thought, I respect those who oppose the death penalty for any number of reasons. It would be nice to have the respect reciprocated.




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  20. Ben Wolf says:

    Anyone who claims to believe in limited government acknowledges the state does not have the right to deprive its citizens of their lives.




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  21. tom p says:

    One more thought, I respect those who oppose the death penalty for any number of reasons. It would be nice to have the respect reciprocated.

    Charles, I do not think anyone here thinks you want an innocent person exocuted for a crime they did not commit… It is your willingness to accept the possibility that one might be… that is what they object to.

    As for my ownself, my question to you is this: Which is more painful: Death at age 32??? or Life until 87? (we already know which is cheaper)




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  22. tom p, am I worried that Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t really kill and eat all those people? Well, no. I’m willing to name individuals and crimes that merit the death penalty and work on a way to help insure we do our best to avoid irrevocable mistakes. Are you claiming that we can never be sure that Jeffrey Dahmer, et al, really were guilty?

    Also, I hope you’re right about what people expect, but that’s not really what I’m referring to. Does the respect go so far as not to think I am morally wicked or stupid or just plain evil because I favor capital punishment in some instances?

    Ben Wolf, nonsense. Unless you think the US Constitution didn’t really establish a limited government with enumerated powers.




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  23. mantis says:

    Well, no. I’m willing to name individuals and crimes that merit the death penalty and work on a way to help insure we do our best to avoid irrevocable mistakes.

    So what, only famous serial killers get executed? At whose discretion is the death penalty meted? A judge? A jury? What distinguishes a death penalty conviction from a life sentence? You say this:

    beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t sufficient to support the death penalty in sentencing, though it may be perfectly acceptable for determining guilt.

    So what is the threshold, if not beyond a reasonable doubt?




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  24. tom p says:

    Also, I hope you’re right about what people expect, but that’s not really what I’m referring to. Does the respect go so far as not to think I am morally wicked or stupid or just plain evil because I favor capital punishment in some instances?

    Charles, did I use the word “expect” in my post? No. and I would appreciate it if you would not put words in my mouth. I repeat: (read my words) I DO NOT THINK ANY ONE HERE THINKS YOU WANT AN INNOCENT PERSON SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR A CRIME THEY DID NOT COMMIT.

    And Charles, I am more than willing to acknowledge that certain people, certain crimes, DESERVE the death penalty… However I cannot help but acknowledge my own human short comings and inability to tell the difference with ABSOLUTE certainty… ergo, I will never be part of sentencing a person to death. Unlike some, I recognize that I am not God.

    You are NOT morally wicked or stupid or just plain evil… I too have wished death on certain individuals… I just don’t feel I am able to carry out that sentence with moral certitude.




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  25. tom p says:

    As for my ownself, my question to you is this: Which is more painful: Death at age 32??? or Life until 87? (we already know which is cheaper)

    And Charles, you never did answer my question…..




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  26. tom p, sorry, I didn’t mean to single you out or imply anything about your comments, but others have not been so kind. I can understand how it can be read that way. My apologies.

    With respect to your question, it is a false dichotomy as well as a loaded question. There is no answer that is correct, and you are wrong that we know which one is cheaper, at least until we answer for whom.

    mantis, uh no. If your reading comprehension is that poor find someone else who will humor your nonsense.




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  27. mantis says:

    mantis, uh no. If your reading comprehension is that poor find someone else who will humor your nonsense.

    Apart from the snark about famous serial killers, those are all legitimate questions about your position. No wonder you ignore them.




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  28. tom p says:

    Charles, no apology is necessary. (still, it is appreciated)

    As to my question, it is pretty simple:

    As for my ownself, my question to you is this: Which is more painful: Death at age 32??? or Life until 87? (we already know which is cheaper)

    We do know which is cheaper ($)…. The costs are all in the lawyers….

    Charles, ever been in prison? (neither have I) but I know more than a few who have and they all say it is far worse than I can imagine (and as one who has been in jail for 24-48 hrs a time or two…. I don’t doubt them)

    For most, death is far easier than a life restrained till death do us part (I suspect)




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  29. An Interested Party says:

    Charles, you appear rather defensive, especially since no one claimed or even implied that you are a bad person because you are in favor of the death penalty nor did anyone claim or imply that you are in favor of executing innocent people…




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  30. bains says:

    Additionally, ever since the advent of DNA evidence, we’ve seen far too many instances of innocent men imprisoned for crimes that they clearly did not commit to think that it hasn’t happened in a capital punishment case.

    Whereas you think the use of DNA undermines capitol punishment, I think it becomes an even stronger advocate for it. Certainly, going through the backlogs using newly refined DNA testing shows flaws of our past criminal punishment system, you seemingly disregard how beneficial those same systems can be to conclusive judgments today. Now I will admit that I have an unusual view of how the death penalty ought to be used – rarely, and only in cases with overwhelming circumstances (Dalhmer, Gacy, Bundy, McVeigh, and indisputable high treason cases) punishable by death by public hanging – but to say that we ought to scrap an improving system just because mistakes were made in the past is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is akin to saying we should have stopped research into heavy metals because Marie Curie unknowingly irradiated herself… or ceased all flights because Amelia Erhart got lost over the Pacific using only a compass, a timepiece, and rudimentary maps.




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  31. anjin-san says:

    The death penalty is just a bad idea. Too much power for the state to have. Too many mistakes, and they are permanent. Too many blacks and poor folks on death row. In Texas you have public officials who don’t seem at all concerned about the possibility of executing an innocent man.




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  32. matt b says:

    Two points…

    (1) @Charles – I’m not suggesting that you are a bad person for supporting the death penalty. I’m simply asking that you accept that you are supporting a system which will inevitable kill people who didn’t commit the crime they were sentenced for. And while one can strive to never do it again, the fact is it does happen and will keep happening.

    I respect your belief in your position, I’m just asking that you honestly accept/own the uncomfortable aspects of that position (as I think you would expect me to do for my positions).

    (2) Bains – Look, no offense, but comparing refining the death penalty to either scientific research or aviation is flat out wrong — if for no other reason that the two figures you mentioned Curie and Erhart *chose* to engage in risky behavior. The “innocent” person who is executed wrongfully didn’t *choose* to get put on death row. Beyond that I think you really need to come up with a convincing arguement that the death penalty is of equal societal value as, say, science! or aviation!

    General note on “here’s the way I think the death penatly should work” folks — It’s never going to work in your special way. So those discussions have nothing to do with reality. If you are going to defend the system – you need to defend the current system, not the *perfect* one in your head.




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  33. As currently constituted, the death penalty has far too many mistakes. I won’t argue with that. While one mistake is too many, to say that even one mistake over the course of history makes it unacceptable is equivalent to arguing that the other side of the ledger has nothing in its favor, and I do not agree with that. Society has a legitimate interest in terminating the existence of some individuals whose behavior violates the most extreme predefined boundaries.

    I will argue that it is false that the only available solution to this problem is to abolish the death penalty. It is, yet again, and just to annoy the usual suspects, another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.




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  34. mantis says:

    I’ll try again.

    I’m willing to name individuals and crimes that merit the death penalty and work on a way to help insure we do our best to avoid irrevocable mistakes.

    At whose discretion is the death penalty meted? A judge? A jury? What distinguishes a death penalty conviction from a life sentence? You say this:

    beyond a reasonable doubt isn’t sufficient to support the death penalty in sentencing, though it may be perfectly acceptable for determining guilt.

    So what is the threshold, if not beyond a reasonable doubt?




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  35. tom p says:

    As currently constituted, the death penalty has far too many mistakes.

    Hence, if I am ever called for a DP caxe, I will never serve on that jury.

    I won’t argue with that.

    So you agree it should end for now?

    All snark aside, Charles, you admit the system is broken?

    While one mistake is too many, to say that even one mistake over the course of history makes it unacceptable is equivalent to arguing that the other side of the ledger has nothing in its favor, and I do not agree with that.

    And here Charles, is where I lose you… because even ONE innocent man being executed (OK not innocent, just not guilty) is too much for me.




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  36. mattb says:

    While one mistake is too many, to say that even one mistake over the course of history makes it unacceptable is equivalent to arguing that the other side of the ledger has nothing in its favor, and I do not agree with that.

    No… that wasn’t my argument.

    My argument against the death penalty is that there is no way to prevent ongoing mistakes. The fact is that there will always be flaws within the justice system (as noted in the saying that there are “too many problems today.”

    To support the death penalty, simply put, is to support the eventual killing of an innocent person.

    What seems somewhat ironic, is that, at least in this case, the people who are arguing the loudest for the death penalty and it’s effectiveness are the same people who often remind us we cannot trust government in the first place. So is the death penalty one of the few things that the government produces effectively?




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  37. mantis says:

    What a surprise, Charles fails to adequate think through or explain his position.




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