Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lawmakers vote to abolish death penalty

By Lauren Johnson

A repeal of Illinois’ death penalty passed today in the Senate after heated debate and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Pat Quinn has said he supports capital punishment when it’s applied “carefully and fairly.” However, he has said he has no plans to lift the current moratorium on executions. A spokesperson for Quinn said today only that the governor plans to review the bill.

“The current moratorium gives the state an opportunity to reflect on the issue and create safeguards ensuring the death penalty is not being imposed improperly. “It is unconscionable that an innocent person could be put to death in Illinois,” Quinn said last year during his campaign for governor.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who opposes abolishing the death penalty, said changes that were enacted after then-Gov. George Ryan imposed the moratorium in 2000 have begun to improve the system. “In my office, the reforms are working,” Alvarez said.

During debate over the bill, its sponsor, Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said Illinois “ought to be embarrassed” by its track record of wrongfully convicted individuals.

“This question is not about the people who we know did it,” said Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from Olympia Fields. "It’s about the people who were convicted who didn’t. It’s about our system of justice that is actually predicated upon the protection of the innocent, and executing one innocent person is too high a price to pay.”

“What we have learned is that the system cannot be fixed,” said Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican. Twenty men previously on death row in Illinois were exonerated at the cost of taxpayers, he said.

“Seven out of 10 of those people on death row when Gov. Ryan commuted their sentences didn’t contest their own guilt,” said Sen. William Haine, a Democrat and former prosecutor from Alton. “People have not had a say as to whether these great crimes will no longer face just punishment.” He called for a constitutional amendment to be put to the voters instead of having the legislature decide the issue.

Raoul responded, “If you don’t want to take responsibility in making these hard decisions, then resign.”

Opponents of the legislation also voiced concerns about taking away law enforcement's ability to use the threat of the death penalty to obtain information from suspects. But proponents say the threat of death should not be a tool to push a plea bargain.

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