March 9, 2011
Justice Advances in Illinois
Gov. Patrick Quinn of Illinois has done the right thing in signing legislation that abolishes the death penalty in his state. Since 1977, Illinois’s criminal justice system has wrongly condemned at least 20 people to death. Governor Quinn courageously put aside his own longtime support for the death penalty to ensure that the state does not commit any more such horrors.
Illinois joins 15 other states, the District of Columbia and most modern nations in rejecting the barbarism and capriciousness of the death penalty.
Governor Quinn not only declared that his state’s system for applying the death penalty was “inherently flawed.” After two months of consultation and debate with prosecutors, judges, crime victims, religious leaders and state citizens, he concluded that “it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.”
At the same time, the governor commuted the sentences of 15 men on death row to life imprisonment without parole, cleaning the slate after an 11-year moratorium on executions prompted by evidence of repeated law enforcement and judicial abuses in capital cases.
Former Gov. George Ryan first declared the moratorium in 2000, as the evidence of improper trials mounted. Mr. Ryan found the problem so endemic that he commuted 167 death-row felons to life terms in 2003 and urged widespread reform.
Governor Quinn rejected the favorite law-and-order argument, saying he “found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder.” Rather, he said he discovered “numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment.”
Eloquently making a case that other states should heed in the name of humanity, Governor Quinn pointed to the 20 exonerations forced on the state. These he pronounced a matter of “profound regret and shame we, as a society, must bear for these failures of justice.”