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.

Richardson on death penalty ban: 'Sign it'
Ex-New Mexico leader urges Illinois' Gov. Pat Quinn to do as he did and end death penalty
February 28, 2011

During his first term as governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson sent a clear signal to lawmakers who had long hoped to abolish the death penalty in that state: "Don't bring it up. I'll veto it."

But two years ago, midway through his second term, they sent him a bill. He signed it.

It was a gut-wrenching call. Long a supporter of capital punishment, Richardson had become troubled about the risk of wrongful executions. So he set up a hotline to hear from citizens. He sifted through thousands of letters and e-mails. He sought the counsel of corrections officials and law enforcement officers and met with families of murder victims. He prayed. He anguished. Hours before the deadline — midnight March 18, 2009 — he shut himself in his office and made the decision.

All of that no doubt sounds familiar to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who has a similar bill on his desk. Even the deadline is the same: March 18.

Quinn has heard from prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and law enforcement experts, former death row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence and a Catholic nun whose book inspired the movie "Dead Man Walking." He's taken calls from South African Bishop Desmond Tutu and actor Martin Sheen. His lieutenant governor has urged him to sign the bill; the state's attorney general wants him to veto it.

Richardson told us he hasn't spoken to Quinn about the bill, but if he did, "I'd recommend that he sign it."

Like Quinn, he'd long believed execution was an appropriate punishment for the most heinous crimes. He'd supported it throughout 14 years in Congress and during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

He'd met with families of murder victims and felt an emotional connection with them. He was convinced the death penalty was a deterrent to similar crimes.

But as he studied the issue, he saw "too many mistakes." He met former death row inmates who'd been exonerated by DNA evidence. He saw evidence that the death penalty is applied disproportionately to minorities. "I came to believe this was something that government was very bad at doing," he said.

That part should sound familiar to Quinn too.

Illinois had sent at least 20 innocent men to death row by 2000, when then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions. In 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 condemned men and pardoned four others.

Lawmakers set out to reform the system but came up short. Under pressure to solve horrendous crimes, police and prosecutors continue to make the same mistakes.

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. That's why lawmakers passed the bill that awaits Quinn's decision.

Richardson knows what it's like to walk in those shoes. Decision day found him still conflicted after a sleepless night. In the morning, he attended Mass; in the afternoon, he toured the cell block where murderers are housed to satisfy himself that life without parole is a suitably strong punishment. He made a few more calls. Then he signed the bill.

"My conscience feels good, but I'm still troubled," he told reporters. It was a startling confession, coming from a politician known for resolute confidence. But two years later, those doubts are gone.

"I believe it was the right decision," Richardson said.

We think so too. Gov. Quinn, it's up to you.

("Richardson on death penalty ban: 'sign it'," Chicago Tribune (editorial), February 28, 2011).  Read more Editorials on the death penalty.  See Recent Legislative Activity.