On January 11, the Illinois Senate, by a vote of 32-25, joined the House in voting to repeal the state’s death penalty and re-allocate funds in the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement. If signed into law, Illinois would become the 16th state to stop capital punishment and would mark the fewest states with the death penalty since 1978. Since 1976, Illinois has carried out 12 executions.  In the same period, 20 inmates have been exonerated from the state’s death row, the second highest number in the United States. The state has not had an execution since 1999, and since then, use of the death penalty has declined sharply. In the 1990s, the state averaged over 10 death sentences a year. In 2009 and 2010, the state imposed only one death sentence each year.  The bill must be signed by Governor Pat Quinn in order to become law.

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Illinois House Votes to Repeal Death Penalty

By a vote of 60-54 on January 6, the Illinois House approved SB3539, a bill to repeal the death penalty and use the money saved to assist victims' families and improve law enforcement.  The action came eleven years after a moratorium on executions was put in place by then Governor George Ryan.  The repeal bill will now move to the Senate for a vote as early as next week.  In January 2000, Ryan ordered the moratorium following revelations that more than a dozen innocent people had been sentenced to death in the state. In 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life before leaving office.  Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz, who voted for the repeal, commented, “I believe the history of the death penalty in Illinois demonstrates that we are not in a position to get it right 100 percent of the time.” If the bill is approved in the senate, it will go to Governor Pat Quinn for his possible signature.

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Death Penalty Repeal Bill Considered in South Dakota

A bill that would repeal the death penalty in South Dakota was scheduled for a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee on February 10. The bill, HB 1245, would mandate life imprisonment without parole for people convicted of Class A felonies. South Dakota has only executed one person in the last 50 years, and currently has 3 people on death row. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Gerald Lange (D-Madison), and strongly supported by the Association of Christian Churches of South Dakota. Gene Miller, Executive Director of the Association, said, "We don't have to go that far back in our history to find, for example, segregation laws. That made that legal, but it was never moral. Our position on this would probably be similar to that: You can make it legal, but that doesn't necessarily make it right."  (South Dakota is one of several states considering legislative action regarding the death penalty this year. See DPIC's Recent Legislative Activity page.)

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NEW VOICES: Montana Assistant Attorney General Calls for Death Penalty Repeal

Montana Assistant Attorney General John Connor has voiced support for a legislative measure that would abolish capital punishment in his state. Stating his belief that the death penalty does not deter crime and is expensive, Connor told the Montana House Judiciary Committee, "It seems to me to be the ultimate incongruity to say we respect life so much that we're going to dedicate all our money, all our resources, our legal expertise and our entire system to try and take your life. . . . Frankly, I just don't think I can do it anymore." Senator Dan Harrington, who sponsored this year's repeal measure, added that it is wrong to teach children "that to prevent violence we beget violence." He also noted that the death penalty is costly and unfair.

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Maryland Commission Recommends Abolition of Death Penalty

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted on November 12 to recommend the abolitiion of the death penalty in the state. In a 13-7 vote, the Commission cited the possibility that an innocent person could be mistakenly executed, as well as geographical and racial disparities in how it is used. Benjamin Civiletti, the chair of the commission and a former U.S. attorney general, said, “It’s haphazard in how it’s applied, and that’s terribly unfair.”

The Chairman also shared that he does not have a moral opposition to the death penalty but is against it because of cost, the potential for an innocent person to be executed, and jurisdictional disparities. Panel members concluded that there was a “real possibility” an innocent person could someday be executed in Maryland. A commission member who was on death row for a murder he did not commit, Kirk Bloodsworth, said, “In 1985, I went to death row for two years.” He continued, “Now if that’s not real, I don’t know what is.” He was later cleared by DNA evidence.

The panel also found no persuasive evidence to support deterrence of homicides in Maryland through the use of the death penalty. A report will be prepared for the General Assembly by December 15 explaining the Commission's recommendation and including the minority point of view.

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New Hampshire Senate, Wyoming House Pass Bills to Ban Juvenile Death Penalty

Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile offenders, two state legislative bodies have passed measures to ban the practice. The New Hampshire Senate passed its bill to ban the execution of those who were under the age of 18 at the time of their offense on February 19, 2004. The measure now moves to the House, where a committee hearing and vote are expected in the coming weeks. The Wyoming House also passed a measure to ban the execution of juvenile offenders. The House voted 45-12 in support of the bill on February 20, and members of the Wyoming Senate are expected to consider the ban next week. A bill is also advancing in the South Dakota legislature. Currently, 17 of the 38 states that maintain capital punishment forbid the execution of those who were juveniles at the time of their crime. The juvenile death penalty is also forbidden under the federal government's statute. See Juvenile Death Penalty. See Recent Legislative Activity.

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