Illinois Death Penalty Ban Should Spark National Conversation

Last Wednesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation (Ill. S.B. 3539) abolishing capital punishment in the state, and commuted the sentences of 15 death row prisoners to life without parole.

This move comes more than a decade after Illinois’ last execution in 1999. In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on capital punishment in the state after the convictions of 13 death row inmates were overturned due to reexamination of evidence. Citing the “demon of error” in the criminal justice system, Ryan commuted all death sentences in Illinois just two days before leaving office in 2003.

The new law banning the death penalty is particularly important given the number of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 31 DNA exonerations in Illinois; only Texas has had more with 42. Furthermore, of the now 267 individuals who have proven their innocence through DNA, 17 served time on death row. Beyond just DNA cases, the Death Penalty Information Center notes that a total of 138 people sentenced to death have been subsequently exonerated since 1973.

One exoneree, Anthony Porter, won a reprieve from the Illinois Supreme Court just two days before his scheduled execution. The court’s decision, however, was not based on the belief that Porter was innocent. Rather, he had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure that he was capable of understanding his punishment. The stay of execution gave a group of faculty and students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University the time they needed to investigate Porter’s case and prove his innocence. He was released in 1999 after serving more than 16 years behind bars.

The recent conviction of former Chicago police officer Jon Burge also sheds light on the potentially fatal mistakes that could have occurred with the continued use of the death penalty in Illinois. In January, Burge was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torture of more than 100 African American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s. His victims spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, and there are still more than 20 people incarcerated as a result of Burge’s crimes.

There seems to be little question that wrongful convictions do happen, but even with this increased awareness, 34 states still allow capital punishment today.  Beyond the United States, Japan and South Korea are the only other democratic countries that permit executions.

Whether other states will follow in the footsteps of Illinois is yet to be determined. Even Texas, with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004, does not appear to have learned from its past mistakes. Willingham, who was convicted in 1992 of murdering his children via arson, was the subject of a 2009 investigative report conducted by The New Yorker. The report debunked all of the evidence used to show that the fire was intentionally set. Even an independent investigation initiated by the Texas Forensic Science Commission produced a similar finding.

The risk of executing an innocent person is not a risk that anyone should be willing to take. Illinois, which has produced more than 30 DNA exonerations, was right to seriously evaluate and overturn its use of the death penalty. While one can live with a guilty prisoner spending his life behind bars, it is impossible to swallow even just one innocent person being put to death.