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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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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NEW VOICES: Retired Federal Judge Urges Illinois Governor to Sign Repeal Bill

Retired Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin recently wrote in the Huffington Post urging Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to sign a bill that would repeal the death penalty.  He wrote, "I am certain we could all list persons who committed outrageous and despicable crimes that we would want executed. Many of us want revenge, retribution and the ultimate punishment in those cases, but, nonetheless, I am opposed to the death penalty."  Judge Sarokin highlighted deterrence, costs, racial discrimination, the risk of wrongful executions and personal moral views as among the most significant reasons for his opposition.  He believes that, “deterrence plays no part whatsoever. Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won't commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole. I do not believe persons contemplating or committing murder plan to get caught or weigh the consequences.”  Reall full article below.

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NEW VOICES: Senator Durbin of Illinois Changes Stance on Death Penalty

U. S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois recently announced at a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., that he has changed his life-long opinion on the death penalty and now favors its abolition. Sen. Durbin, who is the second-ranking member of the U.S. Senate as the assistant majority leader, said that his reflections over many years brought about an evolution in his thinking about capital punishment, particularly with respect to its unfairness and the risk of executing the innocent.  He noted, "There are many people who commit heinous crimes, and I’d be the first to stand up with emotion and say they should lose their lives. But when I look at the unfairness of it, the fact that the poor and people of color are most often the victims when it comes to the death penalty, and how many cases we've gotten wrong now that we have DNA evidence to back us up, I mean, it just tells me life imprisonment is penalty enough." In early January, the Illinois General Assembly presented Governor Pat Quinn with a bill to end the death penalty in Illinois.

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NEW VOICES: Illinois Police Chief Calls for End to State's Death Penalty

Police Chief Charles A. Gruber of St. Charles, Illinois, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement, recently stated that "the death penalty does nothing to keep us safe," and should be abolished.  Chief Gruber served as president of both the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He worked with national organizations for over a decade to devise reforms to make the death penalty effective and fair but now now believes Illinois will always leave open the possibility of executing an innocent person and will subject murder victims’ families to excruciatingly long proceedings. In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, he wrote, “I am grateful that SB 3539 not only gets rid of a system that has proven itself too flawed to fix, but that also puts the savings from the death penalty where they are desperately needed: law enforcement training. The best thing we can do to ensure the safety of our communities and men and women in uniform is to see that law enforcement have the resources and training they need to do their job well.”  Read full op-ed below.

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Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Urges State Legislators to Review Death Penalty

On January 14, in one of his final acts as governor, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell wrote a letter to the state General Assembly urging legislators to consider replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole if it cannot be made more effective than it has been. Gov. Rendell wrote that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is not a reality: “As a former District Attorney and as a death penalty supporter, I believe the death penalty can be a deterrent – but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously. However, a 15-, 20-, or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and the actual execution is no deterrent… To criminals on the street, our death penalty is simply not a reality.”  The governor said the current system was frustrating to both police and victims' families.  He said if the process could not be streamlined, while still protecting defendants' needs for a thorough appeal, it might be time to consider abolition: “If you conclude that there is no avenue to achieve this [careful streamlining], then I ask you to examine the merits of continuing to have the death penalty on the books – as opposed to the certainty of a life sentence without any chance of parole, pardon or commutation.”  Read full text of Governor's statement below.

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