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March 9, 2011

Illinois Governor Quinn commutes all death sentences as he signs state's death penalty repeal

As detailed in this Reuters piece, as he was signing a state bill to abolish the death penalty, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn "also commuted to life in prison the death sentences of all 15 inmates currently on the state's Death Row, and established a trust fund for murder victims' families." 

Simply for the sake of finality and to save litigation costs, this seems like a sound move by Gov. Quinn.  I suspect, however, the persons involved with these 15 murder cases are not too pleased this notable mass commutation is now part of the historic Illinois capital punishment repeal.

UPDATE Available at this link is the statement issues by Governor Quinn explaining his decision to sign the bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.  Here is an excerpt:

Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or 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.  For the same reason, I have also decided to commute the sentences of those currently on death row to natural life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole or release.

I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims’ families in overcoming their pain and grief.

To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims’ families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold.  But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain.  Nothing can do that.  We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims’ families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.

March 9, 2011 at 04:45 PM | Permalink


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I can understand finality and consistency reasons for commuting the sentences, but what "litigation costs" are saved? Each of these murderers has already been convicted and will now have the rest of his natural life to file appeals, post conviction petitions, petitions for relief from judgment (coram nobis) and habeas corpus petitions (both state and federal). It is a fallacy to say that only capital cases have lengthy appeals. Here is Illinois prosecutors are still fighting off challenges to murder convictions which were entered in the 1960s and 1970s.

Posted by: Illinois prosecutor | Mar 9, 2011 6:28:13 PM

Quinn is a lying, criminal coddling slimeball. In other words, he's a Democrat.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 9, 2011 8:16:00 PM

Is it not possible that some of the people with a vested interest in the 15 might now experience closure? It would make an interesting study.

Posted by: George | Mar 9, 2011 9:21:19 PM

I remembered the Brian Dugan case, where he was sentenced to die just a few months ago for murdering 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in 1983. I looked up the case and her father is angry and said he wasn't consulted and ignored when he tried to contact the governor. Typical political weasel. Years of hard work, his own claims of supporting the death penalty and he casually tosses out the death penalty without a thought to the victims' families.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Mar 9, 2011 11:54:20 PM

1) Most of the murder will have been black. He is saying, they had no value as human beings. The value of the of the life of a murderous drug dealer, the child rapist and throat slitter? Higher than that of the victim's.

2) He should abolish all transportation, mining, medicine, manufacturing, until the problem of innocents put to death in those endeavors is resolved. If a law prof slips on the ice at Harvard Yard, cracks his head, and dies, suspend the operation of Harvard. Too high a risk of putting an innocent person to death.

3) Because this is not foreseeable, but carries the guarantee of a planetary orbit, that there will be murders and assaults by these newly immunized murderers, the Governor has full personal responsibility for these.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 10, 2011 12:35:50 AM

Let's see how many of these killers to strike is now seen as no longer the death penalty.

That should further obstruct justice ...

Posted by: Fort Lauderdale brain injury attorney | Mar 10, 2011 3:44:19 AM

"Here is Illinois prosecutors are still fighting off challenges to murder convictions which were entered in the 1960s and 1970s." - Is it really the role of prosecutors to "fight off" challenges to murder convictions? That phrase pretty much sums up the illegitimate attitudes of some prosecutors, who fail to balance their responsibilities for convicting the guilty against the possibility of innocence and error. Whilst systems of trial will continue to be adversarial, it is beholden of prosecutors to recognize the extent and depth of potential past injustice, as awareness of significant errors of reliance on witness statements, identification, prosecutor pressure, discrimination, inadequate defense, junk forensic science and the like come to light, and proven by DNA review amongst others. The responsible response is to be open to review, such has happened in some jurisdictions. If the review must go back to the 60's and 70's in order for justice to prevail, so be it. That is the price of unreliable systems and in some cases, insanely long sentencing. Providing both improve significantly, costs will indeed fall. The role of prosecutors is to follow the guidelines of legislation - not challenge it. If you want to go into politics, leave the service.

Posted by: peter | Mar 10, 2011 3:54:09 AM

My experience, Illinois prosecutor, is that defendants sentenced to death file more successive appeals on more grounds than do those sentenced to life. As just one example of litigation averted, life prisoners cannot and will not bring challenges to the method of execution they face. In addition, whether a state can lawfully seek to execute a prisoner after that state has abolished the death penalty is itself subject to Eighth Amendment (and other) constitutional challenges that may some day need to get resolved by the Supreme Court.

I understand that these 15 murderers with commuted sentences will continue to fight their convictions in court, but now they have far less ammunition to fight their sentences. That was my point when indicating that these commutations saved (some but not all) litigation costs.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 10, 2011 8:22:47 AM


Thank you for the lecture, however the reality is that much post conviction review, especially on collateral attack, does not raise genuine issues but rather spurious ones. Perhaps your view is that the very possibility of innocence and error, no matter how remote, is sufficient for review decades and decades later. You are entitled to that view, however the reality is that the majority of the time in such review innocence is not the remote possibility but rather it is the remote possibility of "error." While a bad sounding word, you are no doubt fully aware that the legal term of "error" encompasses a wide variety of things, many of which do not affect the truth of the verdict, the sentence, or whether the defendant received a fair trial. That a prosecutor would set the bar at a different place on the spectrum of remoteness than you might and still be legitimately open to review does not make such a prosecutor irresponsible nor does using the phrase "fighting off" suggest illegitimacy.

Posted by: David | Mar 10, 2011 8:28:24 AM

The attitude behind Governor Quinn's remarks bears some similarity to Justice Blackmun's...

"On February 23, 1994, at approximately 1:00 a.m., Bruce Edwin Callins will be executed by the State of Texas. Intravenous tubes attached to his arms will carry the instrument of death, a toxic fluid designed specifically for the purpose of killing human beings. The witnesses, standing a few feet away, will behold Callins, no longer a defendant, an appellant, or a petitioner, but a man, strapped to a gurney, and seconds away from execution.

Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere, another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel -- ...someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants' rights -- even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished. In the same vein, we hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the State.

But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy. Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all, and, despite the effort of the States and courts to devise legal formulas and procedural rules to meet this daunting challenge, the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake ...

From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored -- indeed, I have struggled -- along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. ... The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants." Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1143-46 (Blackmun, J., dissenting).

Posted by: cmt | Mar 10, 2011 8:56:07 AM

Professor, while it is certainly true that a commutation to life imprisonment restricts the issues which a defendant can raise in his numerous collateral attacks, it does not reduce the number of those challenges. Specifically, both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit have held that even after a death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment without parole, the defendant can still challenge his sentence. See People v. Mata, 217 Ill. 2d 535 (2006) and Simpson v. Battaglia, 458 F.3d 585 (2006). Therefore, despite yesterday's commutations, each of those 15 defendants will still be free to repeatedly challenge not only their convictions but also their sentences for the next 30 or 40 years, filing as many as six or seven separate collateral attacks, if not more. Since every one of those collateral attacks requires a prosecutor to respond and a court to rule upon it, the "litigation costs" will continue to accrue. Moreover, under Illinois law, even if a defendant was not entitled to appointment of counsel when he filed a collateral pleading in the trial court, he is automatically given appointed counsel on appeal from the trial court's ruling. Therefore, even if the defendant's claim is indisputably frivolous, the State will be still be required to spend scarce resources addressing it.

Posted by: Illinois Prosecutor | Mar 10, 2011 10:08:21 AM

As usual, I am astounded by the vitriol and hints of lunacy in the comment section of this blog. Huzzah for Quinn and for the approaching end of the death penalty!

Posted by: progressive | Mar 10, 2011 11:11:15 AM

Approaching how? So far the only states to abolish the death penalty are states that didn't use it.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Mar 10, 2011 11:36:13 AM

Although I could appreciate the merits of a system that would limit the universe of cases in which the death penalty is sought (perhaps something akin to the federal system, in which the state attorney general would have to specifically sign off on a recommendation to seek a death sentence), I'm surprised to see the enthusiasm for total abolition in the state that produced, among others, John Wayne Gacy. Today he would undoubtedly be a celebrity, peddling his ghoulish clown paintings from his jail cell via smuggled smartphone.

And, at the risk of feeding the trolls:

@Peter: you are entitled to your view that capital punishment is unacceptable on moral grounds and that the death penalty should therefore be prohibited absolutely on moral grounds, as something a "civilized" society should never be allowed to do, regardless of the facts of any particular case, regardless of how clear beyond doubt the defendant's factual guilt, and regardless of how profound a threat a particular inmate is to kill guards or other prisoners in prison. (E.g., can't care as much about prisoners killing guards or other prisoners, because at least it's not the state that's directly responsible; and, in any event, it's really the state's fault anyway for not preventing it, or for causing the social conditions that led the killer to a life of crime for which he obviously has no individual responsibility.) That's a moral judgment; there's no arguing with it. You're entitled to feel the way you feel.

Just be open about it and don't pretend that the concern is with procedural irregularity or the search for elusive "error."

You would undoubtedly oppose the execution of the two rapist-murderers in Cheshire, Connecticut who raped and massacred a mother and her two teenaged daughters, having beaten the father nearly to death and leaving him to die in an arson fire set by them, I take it? (In fact, I assume you'd oppose anything longer than a sentence of say, 20 years for these crimes, without regard to the brutality of the offense or the likelihood of recidividism, simply because in your view a longer sentence would violate the defendants' human rights -- but let's leave that aside.)

Their factual guilt is not in doubt, and neither is the brutality of their indescribably monstrous crimes. Just admit that your opposition to executing them is on moral grounds and not because of a concern for the possibility of procedural error or a concern for what new "facts" might be uncovered over the course of 20-40 years of serial collateral review.

Posted by: guest | Mar 10, 2011 12:38:53 PM

Hm. This just goes to show how things vary from state to state. 99% of non-death cases in Alabama are dismissed on PCR with no review. Total cost to the state? Whatever it costs for the AG's office to email a standard dismissal order to the judge and for him to print it out and sign it.

Posted by: Ala JD | Mar 10, 2011 4:42:14 PM

Dear Guest:

"Their factual guilt is not in doubt, and neither is the brutality of their indescribably monstrous crimes. Just admit that your opposition to executing them is on moral grounds and not because of a concern for the possibility of procedural error or a concern for what new "facts" might be uncovered over the course of 20-40 years of serial collateral review."

If what you said were absolutely true for every one of those sentenced to death, I would be glad to pull their heart out of their chest and show it to them before they died.

Unfortunately, LE lies (without punishment), Crime Labs misrepresent (and are only called on the carpet when they disagree with the prosecution, (whoops)).

You see, even though these particular bastards should be tortured before they are killed, the current (best justice system that the world has ever had) ain't good enough.

If you are unwilling to understand, let me turn the governments own words on you,

For items at trial presented as facts: they should be scientifically evaluated for Specificity, Accuracy. Precision and Ruggedness.

The "guberment" uses these terms to evaluate private industry. They should be good enough for the justuce system,

Posted by: albeed | Mar 10, 2011 11:53:44 PM

In recent years, it turned out, Illinois was batting .300 in death penalty cases, meaning 9 of 12 death-row inmates were cleared by DNA testing. I have no problem with a vicious killer being executed. Have a problem with a system that sucks at getting it right. And in fact, studies have shown repeatedly that the certainty of incarcerat¬ion has a stronger deterrent effect on criminals than the threat of the death penalty.

Posted by: Atlanta Roofing | Mar 11, 2011 12:48:36 AM

@albeed: "If what you said were absolutely true for every one of those sentenced to death, I would be glad to pull their heart out of their chest and show it to them before they died."

Why does it need to be "absolutely true for every one of those sentenced to death" if it's absolutely true for these two miscreants? If the concern is "the execution of an actually, factually innocent defendant is the worst kind of error a criminal-justice system can produce," why does it follow that "therefore, we must categorically rule capital punishment out, even in cases in which the possibility of factual innocence is zero"?

@ Atlanta Roofing: "And in fact, studies have shown repeatedly that the certainty of incarcerat¬ion has a stronger deterrent effect on criminals than the threat of the death penalty." Putting aside that there have been studies showing that capital punishment does have a significant deterrent effect, but only when executions are carried out without unreasonable delay (I agree that certainty of detection and punishment is a stronger deterrent than severity): what do you do about prisoners who are already serving life sentences, or their functional equivalents, who kill? Professor B. raised that issue a few weeks ago in response to the Washington State lifer who killed a prison guard, noting that it's one of those cases that makes it hard, even for those who are generally not capital-punishment enthusiasts, to favor categorical abolition. In Illinois, a life-sentenced prisoner who kills a prison guard or another prisoner, or who escapes and kills someone on the outside, now has de facto immunity from additional prosecution and punishment.

Posted by: guest | Mar 11, 2011 8:36:17 AM

Atlanta: Roofing. Sounds dangerous. How many innocent people have died from roofing this year? About 50, a larger number than have been falsely executed.

I propose stopping all roofing until roofing can be made less lethal to innocent roofers.

"What Can Be Done

These procedures could prevent most work-related deaths of roofers.

Contractors should:

* Conduct safety training, especially on fall safety, electrical safety, and vehicle safety.
* Instead of safety lines and safety monitors to prevent roof-edge falls, consider using moretraditional means, such as guardrails and personal fall-arrest systems.
* Place guardrails around skylights and place solid covers on roof openings.
* Contact utility companies to de-energize or insulate overhead power lines before work begins nearby.

Roofers should:

* Make sure they are trained in safety on the job.
* Ask employers to provide adequate fall protection.
* Keep at least 10 feet away overhead power lines that are live or may be live.
* Practice defensive driving."

As an aside, I once asked a cocaine addict who spent $250,000 on cocaine the prior year, how many crimes did you commit? He answered, "None. I don't have to. I'm a roofer."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 12, 2011 5:37:59 PM

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