SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois again finds itself at the center of the death penalty debate as advocates on both sides wait to hear whether Gov. Pat Quinn will support abolishing capital punishment in a state that had 170 people awaiting execution less than a decade ago.
Lawmakers on Tuesday sent legislation repealing the death penalty to the Democratic governor, who supports capital punishment but has upheld an 11-year moratorium on executions imposed by a predecessor amid a spate of wrongful convictions.
Already wrapped up in a massive state income tax increase that could sully his political future, Quinn wouldn't say whether he would sign the bill after the Senate approved it 32-25. The House passed it last week.
Still, death penalty foes were enthused about the chances for repeal elsewhere if a large, industrial state such as Illinois does it — following New York, New Jersey and New Mexico since 2007.
"It's a clear trend," said Debra Erenberg, Midwest regional director for Amnesty International USA.
Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana are among other states that have considered repeal in the past year or still are pursuing it, according to Erenberg and Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Abolition opponents warned against widespread celebration just yet.
Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican who spearheaded reforms after then-Gov. George Ryan imposed the moratorium in 2000, said it will only take one heart-rending crime to stir calls for reinstatement — particularly in a nation that has just swung to the right.
"The national momentum is conservative," Durkin said. "If the governor signs this bill, it is not going to cause a domino effect in this country. People will look at Illinois as an aberration because of the problems that happened 15 years ago, but they'll forget what we did since then."
Significant changes — including money and training for competent defenses, videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence — followed Ryan's gut-wrenching decision in 2003 to clear death row of 171 people, commuting most sentences to life in prison and freeing four more whose guilt was questioned.
"This is a state in which this was used and then stopped, it was debated for years, fixed — or reformed — and finally there was a resolution by just getting rid of it, so that's about as thorough a process as any state could do," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia already have rid their books of capital punishment.
Illinois has removed 20 wrongly condemned people from death row since 1987, and Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, urged his colleagues to support his repeal legislation and help the state "join the civilized world by ending this practice of putting to death innocent people." There's no proof Illinois ever executed an innocent person.
Former law enforcement officials in the Senate had argued prosecutors need the threat of death to get guilty pleas from suspects who opt for life in prison. They said allowing police and state's attorneys to continue seeking capital punishment will make them more willing to accept reforms in the ways crimes are investigated and prosecuted.
Others argued citizens still want the death penalty option for the worst of crimes.
"It's not a question of vengeance," said Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. "It's a question of the people being outraged at such terrible crimes, such bloodletting."
Durkin said those who continue to say Illinois' system is broken are ignoring the reforms and the careful way prosecutors go about using it today. Just 15 men have been condemned since the moratorium was imposed.
"This is a tool to save additional lives," said Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford. "Use it sparingly, yes, but to take it away will cost us additional lives."
Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, took issue with several characterizations of a potential death penalty as a prosecutor's "tool." He said a prosecutor's promise not to seek death in exchange for a guilty plea holds the potential for as much mischief as confessions manufactured by police tortures in the 1980s that led to videotaping suspect interviews.
"This is not a tool. This is an awesome power," Harmon said. "Can you imagine if you had the power to say, 'You should do what I'm telling you to do, or I will use the full force of the law and the power of the state of Illinois to try to kill you?'"
Several senators, including those who revealed personal encounters with violent crime, explained their evolving positions on the issue, revealing its emotional potency.
Sen. Toi Hutchison, D-Chicago Heights, said she likely would want to see death for anyone who hurt her children, but the state should find life in prison sufficient for evil in this world.
"You deal" with prison, she said, "and then burn in hell for what you did."
Associated Press writers Zachary Colman in Springfield and Karen Hawkins in Chicago contributed to this report.
The bill is SB3539.
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