Thursday, January 06, 2011

House votes to abolish the death penalty

By Lauren Johnson with Jamey Dunn contributing

A bill that would abolish the death penalty in Illinois passed in the Illinois House tonight after coming up one vote short earlier this afternoon.

Maywood Democratic Rep. Karen Yarbrough, sponsor of the legislation, said the state spends at least $20 million a year on capital cases, with no executions performed in the 10 years since former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on capital punishment.

In addition to abolishing the death penalty, Senate Bill 3539 would require the money from the capital litigation fund, which is used to aid defendants in building their cases when prosecutors seek the death penalty, to go to services for homicide victim’s families and additional police training.

“Let's send a message to people across the state and the nation that Illinois is not the laughing stock anymore,” said Yarbrough, noting the 10-year absence of enforced capital punishment and Illinois' history of exonerations of death row inmates. “Now is the time to finish the job [of ending the death penalty]."

Rep. Jim Sacia, a Pecatonica Republican, recounted gruesome details of heinous crimes committed in Illinois and said police need the threat of the death penalty to push confessions and sometimes get the location of victims out of suspects.

Sacia added, “There are untold numbers, in Chicago and throughout Illinois, of successfully resolved crimes because law enforcement had the tool to say, ‘This is an opportunity for you to face the death penalty, or if you talk to us, maybe we can give you a lengthy prison sentence.’”

Proponents say the passage of the measure will lead to cost-savings and prevent wrongful executions of the innocent in Illinois.

Rep. Robert Pritchard said punishment, should be shifted to a “swift justice” alternatives -- such as life in prison without parole -- instead of the long appeals process associated with capital cases.

Opponents
argued the importance of having the death penalty option for individuals who commit heinous crimes and said legislators should be sensitive to the possibility of victims’ families being left without a sense of closure.

Rep. Patrick Verschoore, who voted against the bill when it was called the first time and voted for it the second time around, told reporters he has gone back and forth on the issue. Verschoore, a Milan Democrat, said he couldn’t ignore the possible cost savings.

Senate President John Cullerton, who supports abolishing the death penalty, said the bill will be called in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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