Illinois abolishes the death penalty

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CHICAGO - Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn today signed into law landmark legislation that will ban the death penalty in Illinois. Quinn also commuted the sentences of 15 men on death row to life without parole.

In a written statement Quinn said, "Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions of discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. ...With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case."

Referring to his decision to commute the sentences of those currently on death row, he added, "I felt once the decision was made to sign the law abolishing the death penalty, it should be abolished for all. For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death. This was not a decision to be made lightly, or a decision that I came to without deep personal reflection."

Quinn said the new law "is something that we the people of Illinois will tell the whole world."

The Illinois legislature passed the measure banning capital punishment in early January. The state has not executed anyone for more than a decade since former Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 following a series of revelations that people had been executed and later found to be innocent. During ongoing investigations at the time, 13 men sentenced to death had their sentences overturned. In 2003, days before leaving office, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners to life.

Illinois will become the 16th state to ban the death penalty. The ban takes effect July 1.

Supporters say Quinn's courage in signing the measure into law puts Illinois on the right side of history. Too many mistakes occurred in the past and the system was deeply flawed, they say.

"This wasn't an easy decision for lawmakers and the governor, but it was clearly the right decision," Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement. "We gladly stand with Gov. Quinn, supportive lawmakers and others who know the death penalty is broken beyond repair. Now we no longer have to pretend. We can get serious about addressing the other problems in our criminal justice system and helping other states take this flawed system off their books as well."

Over the years the Chicago Tribune examined nearly 300 capital cases and exposed how bias, error and incompetence undermined many of them. The Tribune found at least 46 inmates sent to death row in cases where prosecutors used jailhouse informants to convict or condemn the defendants. The investigation also found at least 33 death row inmates had been represented at a trial by an attorney who had been disbarred or suspended, and at least 35 African American inmates on death row who had been convicted or condemned by an all-white jury. About half of the nearly 300 capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing.

David Protess, director of the Innocence Project at Northwestern University, told Progress Illinois, "It's a great day for justice. Never again will innocent people be sentenced to death in Illinois. The governor's decision is the culmination of more than a decade of hard work by volunteer lawyers, investigators, journalists and journalism students."

In making his decision Quinn heard from supporters of the ban including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from New Orleans whose time spent advocating for a death row inmate became the basis for the film "Dead Man Walking." Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a former southern Illinois prosecutor, also asked Quinn to sign the bill.

Among those who lobbied Quinn to veto it were Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez as well as victims' families. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley also reiterated his support for the death penalty, saying the use of DNA testing could prevent wrongful convictions.

But Rahm Emanuel, Chicago's mayor-elect, told the Tribune he supports Quinn's decision. "It's the right thing to do," Emanuel said. "I'm glad he's made that decision. It's a different day."

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that President Obama - who as an Illinois state senator helped push through a series of death-penalty reforms - congratulated Quinn at the White House last month after the state Assembly passed the ban.

New Mexico was the most recent state to abolish the death penalty, in 2009. However Susana Martinez, the state's new Republican governor wants to reinstate it.

Photo: Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (AP/Seth Perlman, File)

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