SPRINGFIELD, ILL.— For a mother who lost her son to violence, Illinois’ decision to abolish the death penalty is a betrayal. But to a father who lost two daughters and a grandson, it’s simply the Christian thing to do.
And to a man who was sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit, it’s a civilized step that may inspire other states to halt executions. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature on legislation getting rid of the death penalty provoked an extraordinary array of emotions Wednesday — almost all of them intense.
A Chicago woman whose teenage son was gunned down in 2006 said the killer, who has never been caught, should not be allowed to breathe the same air she breathes.
“I am a Christian. I never believed in killing nobody else,” Pam Bosley said, explaining her change of heart after her son was shot outside a church. “But the pain you suffer every single day, I say take them out.”
Charles Simmons knows that pain. The Peoria resident lost three relatives in a house fire that prosecutors say was arson. But Simmons said his religious beliefs argue against executing the killer — plus, he considers life in prison a harsher punishment. “He knows he’s not getting off easy,” Simmons said. “He’s not going to leave us, you know. He’s got to walk every day in jail, eat, face people in there.”
When the abolition law takes effect July 1, Illinois becomes the 16th state without a death penalty. Most nations, including virtually all of Europe, have abandoned the death penalty. Among the 58 that still use it, according to Amnesty International, are the United States, China, Thailand, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Japan.
Quinn’s action capped two decades of argument and soul-searching over the possibility that Illinois would wind up executing an innocent person.
Twenty people have been freed from death row after evidence surfaced to show they were innocent or had been convicted improperly. Then-Gov. George Ryan halted executions in 2000 rather than risk killing an innocent person. The state’s last execution took place in 1999.
Quinn called this the hardest decision he has had to make as governor, but one he felt was required. “If the system can’t be guaranteed 100 per cent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system,” Quinn said. “It cannot stand.”
He also said capital punishment was too arbitrary. A prosecutor in one county might seek the death penalty, while another prosecutor dealing with a similar crime might not, he said. And death sentences might be imposed on minorities and poor people more often than on wealthy, white defendants.
Quinn commuted the sentences of all 15 men remaining on death row. They will now serve life in prison with no hope of parole. The governor sought to console those whose loved ones had been slain, saying the “family of Illinois” was with them. He said he understands victims will never be healed.
Death penalty opponents hailed Illinois’ decision and said it will carry more weight than abolition in states that rarely used the death penalty. “Illinois stands out because it was a state that used it, reconsidered it and now rejected it,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Gary Gauger, who was sentenced to die for killing his parents before ultimately being proven innocent, said other states will follow Illinois’ example in the long run. “The death penalty is a throwback to a time when society did not have the ability to hold homicidal maniacs … for the rest of their lives,” Gauger said.
New Jersey eliminated its death penalty in 2007. New Mexico followed in 2009, although new Republican Gov. Susana Martinez wants to reinstate it. In New York, a court declared the state’s law unconstitutional in 2004. Quinn’s decision incensed many prosecutors and relatives of crime victims. Robert Berlin, the state’s attorney in DuPage County, west of Chicago, called it a “victory for murderers.”
On Wednesday, Republican lawmakers immediately began discussing legislation for a new, narrower death penalty. They said safeguards added to the system — negotiated in part by President Barack Obama when he was a state senator — eliminated any real danger of executing an innocent person.
Republican Rep. Jim Durkin of Westchester predicted Quinn will pay a political price if he seeks re-election in four years. Some terrible murder that cries out for the death penalty is bound to occur and grab voters’ attention, he said.
Quinn said he would oppose any attempt to reinstate a new version of the death penalty. He also promised to commute the sentence of anyone who might receive a death sentence between now and when the measure takes effect on July 1, a spokeswoman said. The governor reflected on the issue for two months after the Democratic Legislature passed the abolition bill.
Quinn said he spoke with prosecutors, crime victims’ families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders. He consulted retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and met with Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for the movie “Dead Man Walking.
A Gallup poll in October found that 64 per cent of Americans favoured the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, while 30 per cent opposed it. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The high point of death penalty support, according to Gallup, was in 1994, when 80 per cent were in favour. That’s when doubts about Illinois’ death penalty were growing steadily with each revelation of a person wrongly sentenced to die — people like Anthony Porter.
Porter had ordered his last meal and even been fitted for burial clothes when, just 48 hours before his execution, lawyers won a stay to study the question of whether he was mentally capable of killing. That provided time for a group of Northwestern University students to gather information proving Porter’s innocence.
Ryan, the state’s Republican governor at the time, wound up clearing death row in 2003 by commuting 167 death sentences to life in prison and pardoning four people. Chicago attorney Enrico J. Mirabelli, whose cousin Sheri Coleman and her two young sons were slain in 2009, said he has mixed emotions about Illinois abolishing the death penalty altogether.
“The primitive emotion says an ‘eye for an eye,’ ” Mirabelli said. “But when you think about it, whether he dies or spends life in prison doesn’t bring my cousin back.”