Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Death penalty opponents renew push for abolition

By Lauren Johnson

Those in favor of abolishing the death penalty believe they have enough support to make another push during the lame-duck session.

Former Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on capital punishment in 2000 after more than a dozen inmates on death row were exonerated. While courts continue to hand out death sentences, Illinois is not currently executing prisoners.

Senate Bill 3539 would permanently abolish the death penalty. It would also require money from the capital litigation fund, which is used to aid defendants in building their cases when prosecutors seek the death penalty, to be spent on support for homicide victim’s families and for additional police training.

A House committee approved the measure in November(scroll down)
, but supporters said it lacked the votes needed to pass. After having more time to lobby lawmakers, they now think the support exists to pass the bill through both chambers.

Proponents of the bill argue that the cash-strapped state is spending millions of dollars on what have been empty death sentences for the past 10 years. They say as long as the governor has the power to reinstate the death penalty, Illinois runs the risk of executing of the innocent.

“People who are in opposition to the death penalty want [Illinois] to catch us to the civilized world,” said Sen. Kwame Raoul, the bill’s sponsor. He said the debate needs to be confronted head on because the “imperfect” system, which will always be subject to human error, has seen a number of people exonerated from death row because of mistakes.

“The moratorium is just an artificial hold that can be removed with the decision of one individual,” said Raoul. The senator added, “To the extent it could lead to somebody who’s innocent being put to death under state sanction, I don’t think we can continue to support something like that.”

Some states, most recently New Jersey and New Mexico, have already abolished the death penalty. Opponents continue attempts to block the bill from being called for a vote during the lame-duck session. They argue it is being rushed without properly considering the voices of Illinois citizens.

Prosecutors and families of murder victims who oppose abolition of the death penalty say the issue is not a matter of funding but one of county officials and homicide victim’s families seeking justice in Illinois.

Assistant DuPage County State's Attorney Alex McGimpsey said the legislature should consider critical reforms, such as mandatory recording of murder suspects’ confessions, before eliminating the death penalty as an option.

“There are cases, yes, I agree, that people need to spend life in prison. There are other cases that life in prison is not enough punishment. This is one of those cases, and I pray to God that [the legislature] never abolish the death penalty in the state of Illinois,” said Bill Sloop, whose two daughters, Rachel and Lonna, were murdered. The convicted killer, Daniel Ramsey, is on death row.

The measure awaits a floor vote in the House. If it does not pass in the coming days SB 3539, would not be viable in the new legislative session, which begins next Wednesday.

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