Death penalty officially ends in Illinois

July 1, 2011

City Room and AP Wires

(AP/File)

Friday officially marks the end of capital punishment in Illinois. 

A ban that Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in March took effect at midnight, marking a quiet final chapter in story that propelled Illinois into the center of an international debate just a decade ago. 

In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan made headlines around the world when he imposed a moratorium on all executions in the state.  Ryan's order came after a series of death row inmates were found to be wrongfully convicted and were later released from prison. 

Ryan had long supported the death penalty, but he said the possibility of putting an innocent person to death prompted him to rethink his stance.

"I support the death penalty," Ryan said.  "But I also think there has to be no margin for error."

Three years later, however, Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life, clearing death row entirely.  

"Because of the spectacular failure to reform the system, because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates, with potentially meritorious claims, and because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Ryan said during a speech on January 11, 2003 announcing his commutations. 

The speech was carried live on CNN and broadcast around the world, and Ryan was later nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Ryan's controversial moves re-ignited a national debate over capital punishment, raising questions about the whether the judicial system could be trusted not to put innocent men and women on death row.  Soon, calls for reforming the system appeared in other states.

Along the way, Illinois lawmakers passed a series of measures aimed at reforming the capital punishment system.  The reforms included efforts that focused on eliminating forced confessions and wrongful convictions throughout the state's judicial system.

Prosecutors in Illinois continued to seek the death penalty as they waited to see whether the moratorium imposed by Ryan would be lifted.  The moratorium remained in effect until the Quinn signed a bill officially ending capital punishment earlier this year.

Southern Illinois attorney Tim Capps, one of few trial lawyers in the state that handled capital cases, said the new law will have a financial effect on the state. According to Capps, the cost of trying murder cases will now fall on individual counties instead of the Capital Litigation Trust Fund.

Capps suggests it might be a good idea for the state to establish another fund to help pay for these cases, as capital murder cases can sometimes cost over a million dollars.

"In order to have the best and most fair trial possible you still have to have experts, you still have to have qualified attorneys. Now, all of those safeguards that we put into place to protect innocent people from getting on death row, those aren't going to be available to people who are facing non-death murder cases," Capps said.

According to Capps, judges won't allow the costs to reach the height they once did now that counties have to foot the bill. As for the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, the remaining $420,000 is supposed to go toward counseling for families of murder victims.

Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated, the last one in 1999. Quinn has already commuted the sentences of the 15 men on death row to life in prison without parole.

 

Brad Palmer of Illinois Public Radio contributed reporting.