Death row receives 1st inmate since Ryan’s blanket clemency

Elaine Helm

Illinois’ death row received its first resident Wednesday since former Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in January.

A jury handed 26-year-old Anthony Mertz of Charleston, Ill., a death sentence in the 2001 rape and murder of Shannon McNamara, a 21-year-old student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, The Associated Press reported.

The case automatically was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. Execution has been scheduled for May 5.

“I’m not that surprised (at the sentence), to be honest,” said Katherine Krepel, a Medill senior and student in Prof. David Protess’ investigative journalism class. “I didn’t think that all of a sudden there wouldn’t be the death penalty anymore.”

Protess’ class and NU’s Center on Wrongful Convictions played a significant role in Ryan’s clemency decision.

Rob Warden and Law School Prof. Lawrence Marshall of the center were not available for comment Thursday.

Death penalty reforms languishing in the state legislature still merit attention, Krepel said, despite the nature of the crime and Mertz’s sound conviction.

“Though he may seem very guilty, his guilt really isn’t the point, because it’s really important to re-evaluate the system,” said Krepel, a former Daily staffer.

Jamie Fetty, managing editor of The Daily Eastern News, Eastern Illinois’ student newspaper, said the case has had an impact on many people in the small college town.

“People are affected in sort of a general way,” she said. “People who were in (McNamara’s) sorority or who were close to her were a lot more touched by it.”

Although many Eastern students were not at the university when McNamara was killed, her death raised safety concerns, especially for the large percentage of students who live off campus, Fetty said. According to The Associated Press, McNamara’s mutilated body was found in the living room of her off-campus apartment.

But even in the community where the crime was committed, opinions about Mertz’s sentencing have been divided, Fetty said. She attended every day of Mertz’s trial and said some anti-death penalty protesters frequented the sentencing hearings, although the protests were spearheaded by local Catholic churches and included only a few students.