Gov. Pat Quinn to Decide Fate of the Death Penalty in Illinois

Both houses of the Illinois legislature passed a bill which would end the death penalty in the state. However, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has reportedly stated he wants to “reflect” on the issue before deciding whether or not he will sign the bill into law.

(Reuters) – Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said on Wednesday he would “reflect” on the death penalty ban passed by the state legislature before deciding whether to sign it.

“Anyone in Illinois who has an opinion, I’m happy to listen and reflect and I’ll follow my conscience,” Quinn told reporters. If he agrees to the ban, Illinois will be the first state since 2009 to abolish executions.

The Illinois Senate voted for the ban Tuesday afternoon. The House had approved it last week. Quinn said the opinion of the members of the legislature is “very serious indeed.”

Illinois has not executed anyone for more than a decade after former Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000. This followed a series of revelations that more than a dozen people had been sent to Death Row who were later found to be innocent.

Quinn, a Democrat, has said in the past that he approved of the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, but wanted to continue the moratorium.

I can certainly respect Gov. Quinn’s honesty here. This is an issue that does deserve some reflection but unfortunately for many death penalty advocates, there seems to be a lack of reflection. Admittedly there are pros as well as cons with the death penalty and Gov. Quinn is going to have to weigh these carefully.

Considering that, as mentioned in the article, more than a dozen individuals were wrongfully convicted and put on death row, and considering that former Gov. George Ryan took 167 prisoners off death row and pardoned 4 others (mentioned elsewhere in the article), I would like to think that upon this reflection, Gov. Quinn will determine that the risk of wrongful execution is too great. The question then becomes: “How many innocent individuals am I willing to sacrifice in order to execute those who have truly committed the most heinous of crimes?”

The fact that there are very bad people who do very evil, heinous things (Jared Lee Loughner comes to mind) is the reason why most death penalty supporters support the death penalty.

With this in mind, the article continues:

Lawrence Marshall, a Stanford Law School professor who had represented several freed Illinois Death Row inmates, said the problem with trying to limit the death penalty to “heinous” crimes is that the emotion surrounding those crimes can lead to errors.

“It’s the very kind of passion that triggers the desire for the death penalty in a particular case that does have the potential to be blinding,” said Marshall, who co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.

Among Marshall’s clients was Rolando Cruz, who was on Death Row for years for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, even though another man, Brian Dugan, admitted to the crime. After Cruz was freed, Dugan was convicted and is now on Death Row.

Personally, I think even one wrongful execution is too many and Illinois has demonstrated far too high of an error rate (and these of course are only the errors we know about). Illinois is in no way special in this regard. We have to remember that our criminal justice systems at each level are in fact human systems subject to human error. When the question is a matter of life and death as is the case here, I would urge Gov. Quinn to err on the side of life.

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  • Dr. T

    I fail to understand the linkage of wrongful convictions solely to the death penalty. If there have been hundreds of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, then there probably have been thousands of wrongful convictions that resulted in lesser sentences. Is fifty years in prison for a crime one didn’t commit significantly less bad than ten years on death row and an execution? Shouldn’t we be looking for wrongful convictions for all crimes and all penalties? Focusing solely on death penalty cases abandons other wrongly convicted persons who may spend decades in prison.

  • Stephen Littau

    Dr. T, I get your point and I agree with you about wrongful convictions generally. I have dealt with wrongful convictions for non-death penalty cases as well on a fairly frequent basis here if you want to take a peek at the archives.

    I suppose the reason why I focus so much on the death penalty is because death is irreversible. Sure, I realize the wrongfully convicted can never get their lost time back but I do believe that generous compensation by the state would help and hopefully lead to fewer wrongful convictions.

    I would also like to point out that sometimes interrogators use the threat of the death penalty to coerce confessions from people – even false confessions. I recently watched a “Frontline” documentary about this one case were some 8 (I think it was 8) men were falsely convicted for a rape and murder. After many hours of interrogation, most of them cracked. The prosecutor would say things like “if you don’t confess, and you are convicted, you will get the death penalty…if you cooperate, we will take the death penalty off the table.” It was a very fascinating documentary to be sure…hopefully I’ll get around to writing about this case sometime.

    But yes, even one day of someone doing time for a crime s/he did not commit is too long.

  • Justin Bowen

    Something worth noting is the rate of paternity fraud – which often times has the same consequences as a criminal conviction. What’s different about being falsely designated by courts (often times without even the opportunity to defend one’s self) is that the judgment is irreversible in many cases. Unlike with criminal convictions, courts are, in many cases, barred from rescinding orders or setting aside the consequences of paternity orders. The consequences of paternity fraud are often times as devastating as a criminal conviction and sometimes even result in a criminal conviction.

    It’s a problem that nobody likes to talk about (The Innocence Project and the ACLU (both of which do a great job) refuse to even touch this issue). Legislatures and governors refuse to do anything about this issue and courts are powerless to do anything about this.