Recent Legislative Activity

NEW VOICES: "The Conservative Argument to Abolish the Death Penalty"

In a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune following Illinois's abolition of the death penalty, author and attorney Scott Turow (pictured) outlined three major conservative reasons for opposing capital punishment: it is a failed government program, it is a waste of money, and it doesn't fit with the idea of limited government. Turow served on former Governor George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment, which found numerous problems with the state's death penalty. In highlighting the failures of the system, Turow said, "For conservatives who believe government is too large, too inefficient and too unwieldy to deliver health care, or even the mail for that matter, it should come as no surprise that government efforts to justly select those worthy of death has been a moral disaster." On the issue of costs, he addressed the high cost of death penalty trials and appeals and the lack of deterrent effect, saying, "if the death penalty clearly served a practical purpose like saving lives, these increased costs might be worth it. But in Illinois we have experienced a steady decline in our murder rate since Gov. Ryan first declared the moratorium on executions." Turow closed by noting that some of our European allies abolished the death penalty as a reaction to the horrors of World War II. "The conservative-libertarian view that says that the powers of government must be strictly limited supports drawing a clear line prohibiting a democratic government from ever lawfully killing any of the citizens from whom it draws power. That way a regime that vanished its political enemies or executed despised minorities would mark itself, whatever the legal rigamorole, as an outlaw."

EDITORIALS: Illinois Death Penalty Repeal Called a "Victory for Justice"

An editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times applauded Illinois Governor Pat Quinn for signing the bill abolishing the death penalty. The editors wrote, "We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment. We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts."  For Gov. Quinn, the flaws in the system that can lead to a wrongful execution played the most powerful role in his decision. In a statement delivered immediately after the signing, he said, “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” He continued, “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.”

Illinois Governor Signs Bill Ending Death Penalty, Marking the Fewest States with Capital Punishment Since 1978

On March 9, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a repeal of the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. The governor also commuted the death sentences of the 15 people on the state's death row to life without parole.  The ban on capital punishment comes after an eleven-year moratorium on executions declared by former Republican Gov. George Ryan and makes Illinois the 16th state to end the death penalty. It also marks the lowest number of states with the death penalty in more than thirty years.  The Illinois repeal is an indication of a growing national trend toward alternatives to the death penalty, and an increased focus on murder victims' families and the prevention of crime.  In light of the current economic difficulties, the public has increasingly recognized that resources used for the death penalty could be diverted to higher budgetary priorities, such as law enforcement and victims’ services.  Many murder victims’ families were among the strongest supporters of the Illinois repeal, and the high costs of the death penalty were influential in its passage.  The law requires that state funds used for the death penalty be transferred to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement.

EDITORIALS: Chicago Tribune Urges Governor to Sign Death Penalty Repeal Bill

A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune urged Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the bill to end the death penalty in Illinois.  The paper noted that former Gov. Bill Richardson signed a similar bill in New Mexico, despite previously saying he supported the death penalty when he came into office.  Richardson said that his mind was changed after studying the issue and seeing “too many mistakes” and evidence that the punishment was applied disproportionately to minorities.  The Illinois bill would divert state funds used for capital punishment to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement. The editorial stated: "Illinois [has] sent at least 20 innocent men to death row . . . .Taxpayers have spent more than $122 million in 10 years to send 15 new prisoners to death row, but the moratorium remains in place because the system can't be trusted."  Gov. Quinn has until March 18 to take action on the bill.  Read full editorial below.

Montana Senate Votes to Repeal the Death Penalty

On February 14, the Montana state Senate passed a bill that would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole.  In a 26-24 vote, all of the Senate's Democrats and four Republicans supported ending capital punishment, marking the second straight legislative session for such a vote. Senator David Wanzenried, who introduced the bill, said that the death penalty is not a fair punishment, does not bring closure for victims, or serve as a deterrent to murder. He said the "current system can't be made fair and it can't be made infallible." Other concerns cited by supporters of the repeal bill were the high risks of wrongful convictions, the punishment's disproportional use against racial minorities and the poor, and the financial costs of implementing the punishment. Republican Senator Ryan Zinke said, "Whether you are or not with the moral issue, there is a practical issue of spending money." The bill faces one more procedural Senate vote and will then be passed on to the House.

NEW VOICES: Families of Victims Call for End to Death Penalty in Connecticut

On February 9, more than two dozen families of murder victims came to the Connecticut Capitol complex to urge lawmakers to repeal the death penalty because of its negative impact on families of murder victims. Seventy-six family members of murder victims signed a letter urging lawmakers to end the death penalty. Gail Canzano, whose brother-in-law was murdered in 1999, said, "The death penalty ensnares people in the criminal justice system where mandatory appeals, constitutional challenges and never-ending media attention result in notoriety for the murderer and years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind." Others cited the death penalty's financial and emotional costs as a significant reason for repeal. The letter to Connecticut lawmakers read, "The death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled. And as the state hangs on to this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much-needed victims' services."  The state legislature is considering a repeal bill, and a judiciary committee hearing will be held in mid-March. 

NEW VOICES: Former Prosecutors, Judges and U.S. Attorneys Urge Illinois Governor to Sign Death Penalty Repeal

A group of over 60 former state and federal prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials recently wrote to Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois urging him to sign the bill passed by the General Assembly to repeal the death penalty. The law would also transfer state funds used for the death penalty to a fund for murder victims' services and law enforcement work. The group cited the death penalty's ineffectiveness in deterring violent crime and its high cost of implementation as the primary reasons for ending the death penalty. The letter stated, " Throughout Illinois, law enforcement officials are struggling to find needed dollars for police, forensic investigations, and aggressive prosecution of a wide range of criminal activity. The vast sums that would be spent on the death penalty in the years ahead are sorely needed for other, more effective law enforcement purposes." The letter also cautioned against retaining the death penalty in order to obtain guilty pleas in exchange for life sentences, saying that "using the death penalty as an instrument of coercion has led to false pleas and erroneous convictions."  And merely limiting the death penalty, the group said, " would not solve the underlying flaws that inevitably occur when the authorities are under pressure to win convictions in high-profile cases." See below for list of signatories.

Sen. Leahy Introduces Bill to Reauthorize Justice for All Act

On February 1, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced legislation (S. 250) that would reauthorize the Justice for All Act. The Act, first passed in 2004, provided important tools and assistance to help state and local governments use DNA evidence to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. It also bolstered crime victim support services. If re-authorized, the Justice for All Act would direct more resources to improving the quality of representation in state death penalty cases, adjust the requirements to obtain grants through the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant program so that more states can apply, and allows post-conviction DNA testing at the federal level for defendants who waived their rights in a plea agreement. Senator Leahy said, “The programs created by the Justice for All Act have had an enormous impact, and it is crucial that we reauthorize them. Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system which keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our constitution. This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal.” The bill is co-sponsored by senators Al Franken (D-Minn), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn).  The National Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Criminal Justice Association have written letters supporting the legislation.

 

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