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March 9, 2011

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to sign bill abolishing the state's death penalty

According to this new AP articlefrom Chicago, "Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn intends Wednesday to abolish Illinois' death penalty more than a decade after one of his Republican predecessors enacted a moratorium that has prevented executions for the last 11 years, two lawmakers said."  Here is more on a story sure to make lots of national and international headlines:

Quinn's office confirmed early Wednesday that the governor would announce his decision on legislation to end capital punishment in the state.  Two sponsors of the measure, State Rep. Karen Yarbrough and state Sen. Kwame Raoul, said they were invited to witness the governor sign the bill on Wednesday.  "It's going to happen," Raoul said Tuesday.

Quinn's signature would make Illinois the 16th state without capital punishment when it takes effect July 1.  But a decision to sign has not come easily....  Among those the governor consulted with were prosecutors, murder victims' families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders.  Quinn even heard from retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and met with Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for the movie "Dead Man Walking."

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan appealed directly to Quinn to veto the bill, as did several county prosecutors and victims' families.  They said safeguards, including videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence, were in place to prevent innocent people from being wrongly executed.

But death penalty opponents argued that there was still no guarantee that an innocent person couldn't be put to death.  Even Quinn's own lieutenant governor, Sheila Simon, a former southern Illinois prosecutor, asked him to abolish capital punishment.

Illinois' last execution was in 1999, a year before then-Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after the death sentences of 13 men were overturned. Ryan cleared death row before leaving office in 2003 by commuting the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison.

If Quinn were to sign the bill, it is unclear how that would affect the 15 inmates currently on Illinois' death row....  Prosecutors would still be able to seek the death penalty and juries could still impose it until the law took effect.

It is going to be interesting to watch how death penalty abolitionists and supporters try to spin the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.  I suspect abolitionists will claim that this development is the latest and most important evidence that the death penalty is dying in the United States; I suspect supporters will claim this development is not really a big deal because Illinois has been functionally without a fully operational death penalty for over a decade.

There is a grain of truth to both spins, and who is more right may depend in part on whether on-going abolitionist efforts in other states like Connecticut and Montana get a boost from this development in Illinois.  And the future potential political consequences for Governor Quinn and other elected officials in Illinois also may provide an important indication of which ways the capital punishment winds are really blowing.

March 9, 2011 at 11:09 AM | Permalink


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It is a great day for the State of Illinois
A Great historical day for America and its soul!

Posted by: Laser Haas | Mar 9, 2011 1:28:39 PM

Given that there was no way IL was actually going to execute anyone (regardless of the underlying crime or proof of guilt) this is probably a good move.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Mar 9, 2011 1:44:04 PM

Whichever way the winds blow, professor, there you will be a flutterin'.

Posted by: Sal | Mar 9, 2011 2:19:50 PM

Sal, it seems you are suggesting my personal views on the death penalty should not be influenced by my commitment to let voters in individual jurisdictions through the democratic process control policy on issues of legitimate debate. To the charge that I consider a commitment to democracy more important than a commitment to a substance view on the death penalty, I plead guilty.

There are many other issues -- e.g., capital and non-capital sentencing procedure, what can be criminal, substantive rights to free speech and other core constitutional values --- for which my personal substantive commitments (as well as our Constitution's substantive commitments) trump a general commitment to democratic rule/procedure. But, at least for me, the death penalty is not one of those issues.

What is the basis for your apparent view that a substantive view on capital punishment should trump democracy? Is it a religious view? Is it based in a special faith in your unique wisdom on capital punishment or a general distrust for democracy and a special faith in the lack of wisdom of fellow Americans? I am genuinely interested, Sal, in what serves as the basis for your great confidence on an issue that has long been a subject of uncertainty (and humility) for me.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 10, 2011 8:30:24 AM

Prof Berman,

You seem to be unable to get your own head around the issue and discover - for yourself - if you think it is right or wrong. Are others in charge of everything you think?

Posted by: Sal | Mar 10, 2011 10:29:07 AM

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