Illinois Bans Death Penalty

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There are no longer death row inmates in Illinois. Today, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty, and he commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates who had faced execution.


There are no longer death row inmates in Illinois. Today, Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, he also commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates who had faced execution.

CHERYL CORLEY: It has been 11 years in the making, the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. Executions have been on hold since 2000, and now there will be none. As he signed the bill, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn called this his most difficult day as governor. But Quinn also said the best step forward for Illinois is to be done with the death penalty altogether.

Governor PAT QUINN (Democrat, Illinois): We all know that our state has had serious problems with respect to the system of the death penalty for many years. Twenty individuals have been sentenced to death and later exonerated and removed from death row.

CORLEY: And so, says Quinn, he studied every aspect of the Illinois death penalty and concluded that it was impossible to create a perfect system.

Gov. QUINN: One that is free of all mistakes, free of all discrimination with respect to race or economic circumstance or geography.

CORLEY: So instead of execution, the most severe sentence will be life in prison without any chance of release.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says no state has studied the death penalty more than Illinois. He says when the law takes effect in July, Illinois will join 15 other states that have abolished the death penalty.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): For a Midwest state that actually had, you know, one of the larger death rows in the country to come to this point, I think, is even more significant than some of the earlier states, which hardly used the death penalty.

CORLEY: State lawmakers voted to abandon capital punishment in January, and Governor Quinn spent two months speaking with religious leaders, prosecutors, death penalty opponents and the families of victims.

Pam Bosley is one of the organizers of a group called Purpose Over Pain. Her 18-year-old son Terrell, a college freshman, was shot to death in 2006 as he was coming out of church. Bosley tried to talk the governor out of signing this bill.

Ms. PAM BOSLEY (Organizer, Purpose Over Pain): I can't see my son at all no more, so I can't see him grow old. They took all that from me, so I feel like - that their life needs to be ended.

CORLEY: Governor Quinn offered words of consolation to those who had lost loved ones and announced that there would be a death penalty abolition trust fund to provide resources to relatives of victims.

Gov. QUINN: You're not alone in your grief. I think it's important that all of us reach out through this trust fund in helping family members recover.

CORLEY: The Illinois attorney general and other opponents also appealed directly to the governor, saying there are now safeguards, like videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence, to prevent innocent people from being wrongfully executed.

Michael Rushford heads the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-law enforcement legal advocate. He says losing the death penalty gets rid of an important tool that prosecutors can use for plea bargains.

Mr. MICHAEL RUSHFORD (President, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation): Some notorious murderers have pled out and told law enforcement where other victims were in order to avoid the ultimate penalty. At least this closes the cases and gives victims some closure in these crimes.

CORLEY: Some death penalty opponents had argued that the measure doesn't provide closure and wastes money. They are hoping that the decision here in Illinois to eliminate executions is a trend that will continue.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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