The Chicago Tribune writes, "The end of death row."
Gov. Pat Quinn made history as quietly as possible Wednesday. In a private meeting with a small group of supporters, he signed into law a bill that abolished the death penalty in Illinois. He also commuted the sentences of the state's 15 death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
It was "the most difficult decision I have made as governor," Quinn told reporters. We believe that, and we warmly commend him for that decision.
We understand why Quinn chose to avoid the fanfare that often accompanies the signing of major legislation. But this is a big moment, worthy of significant, if sober, celebration. Recognizing the intractable flaws of a system that sent at least 20 innocent men to death row, Illinois has taken a difficult but courageous step. No government can sanction an instrument of justice that takes such risks with the lives of innocent people.
Many people, some of them the surviving relatives of murder victims, are profoundly disappointed. Law enforcement officials have lost a powerful weapon that was wielded, far more often than not, in good faith. But this was the right call.
Some lawmakers already are working on legislation to reinstate the death penalty. One bill would make the death penalty applicable under limited circumstances — if the victim was a child or a police officer, for example, or if there were multiple victims.
Another would set up a panel to decide whether the death penalty could be pursued in any given case. That's meant to address the 2002 finding of the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment that the death penalty is most often pursued when the defendant is poor or a minority or when the victim is white.
Those measures would not come close to addressing the shortcomings that led to Wednesday's historic change.
Illinois will no longer risk executing an innocent person. Illinois is better off without the death penalty.
"Death penalty repeal a victory for justice," is the Chicago Sun-Times editorial.
Illinois finally has faced up to the ugly truth of the death penalty, and that’s something we can be proud of.
Gov. Quinn’s signing of legislation to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday completed a long journey in Illinois from a time when people could be sentenced to death on scanty evidence with little public outcry.
Here’s where we stood just two decades ago, when the case of accused murderer Rolando Cruz came before the Illinois Supreme Court. Lawyers, investigators and journalists already had unearthed plenty of evidence pointing to Cruz’s innocence, but the court ruled he should be executed anyway.
The 1992 opinion upholding his conviction was laced with careless assumptions. It said the evidence was “overwhelming” (it wasn’t) and that physical evidence strongly buttressed the case against Cruz (there wasn’t any).
The document was shocking because it underscored how little anyone understood the risk that an innocent person could actually be put to death.
Fortunately, an election changed the composition of the high court, and a new one-vote majority sent the case back to DuPage County, where it crumpled so completely that a judge stopped it in mid-trial and freed Cruz.
What we’ve learned since then is that the Cruz case was no anomaly. We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment.
We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts.
The struggle for justice is one that will never end. But with his signature, Quinn brought us one step closer to that ideal.
The Bloomington Pantagraph carries, "Work left to do after abolishing death penalty."
Abolishing the death penalty in Illinois was a difficult decision, but it was the right thing to do.
As Gov. Pat Quinn noted in signing the measure that was approved by a lame-duck legislature in January, “our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed.” That’s not an opinion; that’s a fact.
There have been 20 wrongly convicted people set free in Illinois since 1977. And seven of those exonerations took place after then-Gov. George Ryan imposed a death penalty moratorium in 2000.
Doing away with the death penalty is not a perfect solution. There are crimes so heinous that if guilt is a certainty that capital punishment seems a just punishment.
But, as imperfect as the abolishing the death penalty might be, the laws set up for imposing the ultimate punishment are also imperfect. And such imperfection cannot be tolerated in a civil society when it could result in an innocent person being executed. That’s why 15 other states already abolished the death penalty.
Northwest Herald news editor Kevin Lyons writes the column, "Requiem for capital punishment."
Some are grieving the loss of Illinois’ death penalty today, but don’t count me among the mourners.
It’s no Victory Day for criminals, no Mardi Gras for defense lawyers, nor should it be a dark day for police, prosecutors or victims whose family members are senselessly murdered.
Face it. Capital punishment has been on life support in Illinois for more than a decade, ever since former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty as the lights flickered on his own political life.
Since that time, capital punishment has undergone a quadruple bypass, a blood transfusion, and various organ transplants, many of which were steps in the right direction. Interrogations must be videotaped. Only death-penalty certified lawyers were allowed to try such cases. But in the end, capital punishment in Illinois is a cadaver.
There are many well-meaning, thoughtful people on either side of this debate. Intelligent, moral and spiritual people have strong opinions one way or the other. Some minds are unlikely to change, although mine has over the years.
Ultimately, I was intellectually left with no meaningful support for the death penalty.
It happened through a combination of spending years in criminal courtrooms and closely examining the case of Richmond farmer Gary Gauger, who initially was sentenced to die for murdering his parents, although two other men were responsible for the deaths.
"Justice Advances in Illinois," is the title of the New York Times editorial.
Gov. Patrick Quinn of Illinois has done the right thing in signing legislation that abolishes the death penalty in his state. Since 1977, Illinois’s criminal justice system has wrongly condemned at least 20 people to death. Governor Quinn courageously put aside his own longtime support for the death penalty to ensure that the state does not commit any more such horrors.
Illinois joins 15 other states, the District of Columbia and most modern nations in rejecting the barbarism and capriciousness of the death penalty.
Former Gov. George Ryan first declared the moratorium in 2000, as the evidence of improper trials mounted. Mr. Ryan found the problem so endemic that he commuted 167 death-row felons to life terms in 2003 and urged widespread reform.
Governor Quinn rejected the favorite law-and-order argument, saying he “found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder.” Rather, he said he discovered “numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment.”
Eloquently making a case that other states should heed in the name of humanity, Governor Quinn pointed to the 20 exonerations forced on the state. These he pronounced a matter of “profound regret and shame we, as a society, must bear for these failures of justice.”
In North Carolina, today's Charlotte Observer carries the editorial, "Illinois bows to facts about death penalty: Governor, legislators can't deny flaws; N.C. shouldn't either."
Even a flawless capital punishment system raises serious ethical questions. But the truth is, the death penalty in America is nothing close to flawless. It is riddled with irreparable problems and needs to be abolished.
How many innocent people is it OK to execute? 50? A dozen? One?
The answer, of course, even among death penalty proponents, is zero. That's why Illinois on Wednesday became the 16th state to end capital punishment. And it's why North Carolina should become the 17th.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said his decision to sign the legislation was extraordinarily difficult. But: "It's not possible to create a perfect, mistake-free death penalty system. ... With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case."
North Carolina last executed a person almost five years ago. Since then, the state medical board has taken a stand against doctors participating in lethal injections. Now other developments have raised serious questions about the fairness of the death penalty in this state.
A (Raleigh) News & Observer investigation found that the State Bureau of Investigation withheld or misrepresented evidence in many cases, including murder trials. SBI agents lied about blood-test results in hundreds of cases, the paper found, leading to wrongful convictions and death sentences. Even some prosecutors conceded that executions in those cases needed to be delayed.
It seems unlikely the new Republican majorities in the N.C. legislature will make ending capital punishment a priority. But it shouldn't be a partisan issue. It was a Republican governor, after all, who put in place the Illinois moratorium that culminated in Wednesday's bill signing. Democrats and Republicans want the same thing: justice that's swift and sure, that ensures a killer never kills again and that protects the innocent.
Only abolishing the death penalty achieves that. North Carolina should join the trend.
Earlier coverage of Illinois' repeal of capital punishment begins at the link. Thanks to Gerda Stein for distributing the North Carolina item. I'll have a roundup of news coverage in the next post.