Breaking: Illinois Abolishes the Death Penalty!
What an Ash Wednesday present! As the Chicago Tribune details, Gov. Pat Quinn (D-IL) this morning signed into law the bill that abolishes the death penalty in Illinois. There were 15 death row prisoners remaining and Gov. Quinn also commuted their sentences to life imprisonment!
Illinois has been the center of the 21st C. resurgence of the movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States. In the 1990s, the public support for the death penalty was the highest ever in U.S. history. The federal government greatly expanded the number of federal crimes which would carry the death penalty (although no federal executions have taken place since 1976) and, at the state level, executions were becoming frequent. Even generally-liberal New York, which had not had the death penalty since 1972, reinstated it in 1995 in response to an upsurge in violent crime in the 1980s and 1990s.
Then, in the late 1990s, a group of journalism students from Northwestern University uncovered numerous flaws in the cases of many people on the Illinois death row, finding evidence of innocence in numerous cases. Working with the Innocence Project, and sometimes using the (then-still-new) science of DNA testing, the students managed to show conclusively that several of the inmates of Illinois’ death row were innocent and obtained their releases. A series of newspaper articles followed showing the many grievous errors in the Illinois system of capital punishment and that, since 1976, Illinois had released more false-accused prisoners from death row than it had executed! Calls for a moratorium on executions and an investigation of the entire system were widespread throughout the state–even though Illinois was then dominated by conservative Republican legislators.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (R-IL) imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois–the first victory for death penalty opponents in the U.S. in two (2) decades! Ryan’s last act as governor was to commute all the sentences of those then on death row in Illinois. The Illinois legislator attempted to “fix” the system by putting in far more safeguards against accidental execution of the innocent. This was a compromise between pro-death penalty and anti-death penalty forces in the state legislature, which were pretty evenly balanced. The new legislation (compromise) was shepharded through by a young IL state senator named Barack Obama (D)–who has never revealed his opinion as to the morality or Constitutionality of the death penalty per se. Throughout the first decade of the 21st C., bills to abolish the death penalty were introduced into the state legislature, but always died in one chamber or another.
Meanwhile, DNA exonerations across the nation were doing more than any other factor to change public opinion in state after state against the death penalty. Prior to exonerations using DNA testing, most Americans did not really believe that innocent people wee sentenced to death. The average American trusted the reliability of eyewitness testimony far more than is warranted, as studies show.
In 2004, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty violated the state’s constitution which, in certain areas of criminal law, is stricter than the U.S. Constitution. A subsequent movement by pro-death penalty advocates to amend the New York Constitution in order to reinstate the death penalty failed miserably.
In 2007, New Jersey became the first U.S. state in nearly 30 years to abolish the death penalty legislatively.
In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty.
In 2010 the Colorado legislature fell just 2 votes short of repealing the death penalty–and the legislation has been reintroduced this year.
In 2009, Connecticut’s legislature narrowly voted to abolish the death penalty, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT). In Nov. 2010, Dan Malloy (D-CT) was elected governor. The death penalty was not an issue in the campaign, but abolitionists hope to pass repeal again this year and have hope that the new governor will sign the repeal.
In 2010, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty in Maryland. He campaigned on it. The MD legislature responded only by passing a law raising the level of evidence for the death penalty. O’Malley plans to reintroduce the legislation to abolish it.
Now, Illinois has become the 16th state (plus the District of Columbia) to abolish the death penalty. This brings the number of states in the U.S. with the death penalty to its lowest level since 1978.
Bills to abolish the death penalty are currently pending in FL, KS, MD, MT (passed the Senate and headed to the House), and Washington State. Of those, the bills in MD, MT, and WA have the most chance of passing this year. Georgia has introduced two bills that would restrict the death penalty. Kentucky has introduced a bill that would disallow the death penalty in cases of mental illnesses (not just mental retardation or insanity).
There are also, I must sadly report, bills to reinstate the death penalty or expand it, pending in several states: NH, which has not executed anyone since 1974 and which, two years ago, fell only a few votes shy of abolition, last November elected a very conservative legislature and governor. There are now 2 bills in NH which would expand use of the death penalty, one which would make it mandatory for all murders. NJ has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty for the murder of a police officer, child, or while committing an act of terrorism. NM has introduced a bill to reinstate, but since it would take 2/3 of both houses of the legislature, passage seems unlikely. NY has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty for murder of police or corrections officers. Because of the NY Supreme Court ruling, it seems unlikely this will pass–or would be upheld if it did. Utah has passed a bill that greatly restricts appeals and stays of execution–but the governor has not yet said if he will sign it. (It seems unconstitutional.) VA introduced a bill to expand the death penalty to co-conspirators in cases of rape where the victim is murdered, but it was defeated in committee. WV has introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty, but passage appears very unlikely.
Today’s good news in Illinois gives new energy to the movement to abolish the death penalty nationwide. Joy as we head into the season of penitance!