It has now been ten years since Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill ending the death penalty in Illinois. The abolition bill, signed on March 9, 2011, was the culmination of eleven years of debate after Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in 2000 and then issued four pardons and 167 commutations, clearing the state’s death row in 2003.

The Illinois moratorium, imposed following a year in which U.S. executions peaked at 98, was a catalyst for rethinking the death penalty across the country. At that time, 38 states authorized capital punishment. One year after Ryan’s mass commutation, the New York Court of Appeals declared its death-penalty statute unconstitutional. The court subsequently applied that decision to the rest of the prisoners on the state’s death row in 2007. The New York legislature then opted not to correct the constitutional error, effectively abolishing the state’s death penalty. Legislatures in New Jersey (2007) and New Mexico (2009) also repealed their capital punishment laws in the decade of the 2000s.

Illinois became the first of five legislatures to repeal their death penalties in the 2010s, followed by Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Nebraska (2015, halted by referendum), and New Hampshire (2018, vetoed; and 2019, veto overridden). State courts also declared capital punishment laws unconstitutional in Delaware (2016) and Washington (2018). In 2020, Colorado became the sixth state in a decade to abolish the death penalty. The Virginia legislature voted in February to repeal its death penalty, and will become the first Southern state to end capital punishment once Governor Northam signs the abolition bill.