The Democratic-controlled Illinois Legislature on Monday will begin weighing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s compromise plan to reinstate the death penalty in exchange for even stricter gun restrictions than the ones legislators approved.
Rauner used his veto powers last week to insert the death penalty language, along with measures that include extending the waiting period on all guns from 24 to 72 hours, into a bill both chambers approved with veto-proof majorities. The original bill would impose the restriction just for assault-style weapons.
The prospect of returning capital punishment is a long shot in Illinois, where executions were halted in 2000 when then-Gov. George Ryan warned of “the demon of error.” Experts who have studied the death penalty question the constitutionality of the language in Rauner’s legislation and its intent.
Democrats have fiercely opposed efforts to restore capital punishment, but all spring they called for the sort of gun restrictions Rauner has proposed after mass shootings and the fatal shooting of a Chicago police officer. Most Republicans have taken the opposite positions on both issues.
Lawmakers can accept Rauner’s changes with a simple majority vote in both chambers, reject them and enact the original bill with a three-fifths majority, or do nothing, which would kill both versions. The House Judiciary Committee was taking testimony on the plan Monday afternoon.
Rauner had assigned a task force to study the matter of gun violence but didn’t wait for its recommendations before unveiling his own plan.
In the amendatory veto, the first-term governor added a provision to restore capital punishment for mass murderers and those who kill police officers. It only would apply in cases where a jury finds guilty beyond all doubt — not just “reasonable doubt,” as is the current criminal standard.
Besides the longer waiting period for all guns, Rauner’s plan would ban bump stocks and trigger cranks, which speed up firing rates. It also would authorize confiscation of weapons for those deemed dangerous, find local money for police and mental health officers in schools and require judges in violent gun cases to explain their rationale for approving plea agreements.
“I passionately believe that for such atrocious, heinous, hateful crimes as someone who commits mass murder or someone who intentionally kills a law enforcement officer, they deserve to give up their life,” Rauner said.
The Legislature could vote to override the veto and restore the initial legislation on assault-weapon waiting periods. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, decided it was a policy discussion worth having.
“We’ve been hearing from a lot of people,” said Rep. Jonathon Carroll, the Northbrook Democrat who sponsored the initial waiting-period legislation.
Rep. John Cabello, a Rockford police detective, is like many Republicans who voted against Carroll’s legislation. He disagrees with Rauner’s expansion of the waiting period to all guns, saying it would “affect the law-abiding people but it’s not going to have an effect on the criminals.”
But as the author of his own capital punishment legislation, which has gone nowhere in the 16 months since he proposed it, he’s eager to study Rauner’s plan.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the legislation indicates that juries who find defendants guilty of police or mass killings must be instructed that the penalty is death. That’s unconstitutional, according to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that reinstated capital punishment in the states.
“It’s sloppily written,” Dunham said.
Rob Warden, who has spent years exposing wrongful convictions as a journalist and academic, noted that while Rauner might call his idea on capital punishment “limited,” it’s easy for lawmakers to expand.
When Illinois restored capital punishment in 1977, there were six “aggravating factors,” or legal determinations that, if met, could warrant a death sentence, Warden said. When it was abolished, there were 20.