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March 1, 2009

New bill introduced to abolish capital punishment in Illinois

By Michelle Martin


In 2000, when then-Gov. George Ryan established a moratorium on executions in Illinois, activists called for the state to go further and abolish the death penalty entirely.

When a blue-ribbon panel formed in 2000 came up with a list of 85 recommendations to make the death penalty more likely to be applied accurately and fairly, it also said, “no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death.” In 2003, when Ryan emptied Death Row by pardoning four inmates and commuting the sentences of 156 more, the calls for abolition of the death penalty continued.

Ryan took his actions after the state had released 13 exonerated inmates from Death Row in as many years.

Moratorium in place

Since then, Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn have kept the moratorium in place, and not a single prisoner has been executed in the state. However, 13 people have been sentenced to die. Now, state Representative Karen Yarbrough, a Democrat from Broadview, has introduced a bill that would put an end to the death penalty in the state.

“Why not now?” Yarbrough responded when asked why she introduced the bill now. “The current governor just extended the moratorium, and I don’t know why we’re continuing to do that when what we need to do is abolish the death penalty.”

Yarbrough said the death penalty is clearly not a deterrent to crime, as states that sanction capital punishment have had higher murder rates than those that don’t over the past 20 years.

“When you look at how much money we are spending on capital cases, it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. Several studies have shown that the costs of prosecuting death penalty cases outstrip the costs of imposing life sentences without parole.

The bill was set for a hearing by the criminal law committee Feb. 26, after this issue of the Catholic New World went to press. It is one of the seven issues that the Catholic Conference of Illinois plans to work on this year at Catholics at the Capitol, a one-day advocacy event March 4.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the conference, said the bill might not pass this year, but starting the conversation could help future efforts. A commission studying the death penalty is set to give its report at the end of 2009, and some think it might recommend abolition.

“If we start planning for the release now, we can be ready for it,” Gilligan said. “Today, I would say, the votes are not in place. But with some long-term strategic planning, I think its possible.”

New Jersey’s legislature was able to abolish the death penalty in that state, he said.

Never foolproof

“I think the realization that no matter how many reforms you make to the system, it’s never going to be foolproof and you might end up executing someone who is innocent … I think the moratorium is illustrative of this,” Gilligan said.

In addition, the state spends an “inordinate amount of money” to prosecute capital cases, Gilligan said.

“You come to the conclusion that perhaps it would be better to put these people in prison for life without parole instead of using this very complex and expensive litigation system.”

“Our argument will be the moral one. We will focus on the church’s teaching about the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.”