Quinn signs bill ending death penalty in Illinois

Brian Rosenthal

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn permanently ended the use of the death penalty in the state Wednesday, concluding months of speculation and handing another victory to the Medill Innocence Project.

The Legislature narrowly approved the abolition bill in January. Quinn, a Democrat who had previously supported the death penalty, spent two months weighing the measure. In public remarks after a private signing ceremony Wednesday, he called it the “most difficult decision” he’s made as governor.

“For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death,” Quinn said in a statement.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it,” he added. “With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case.”

Evanston lawmakers supported the governor’s move. State Rep. Robyn Gabel has called the bill an “incredibly important piece of legislation” and State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg vote for it in the Senate.

Death penalty supporters, including outspoken family members of murder victims, blasted Quinn’s decision. DuPage County state’s attorney Robert Berlin called it “a victory for murderers across Illinois.”

In a corresponding move, Quinn also commuted the sentences of the 15 inmates currently on death row, changing their punishments to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The status of those inmates had been in limbo given Illinois’ 11-year temporarily moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

The Medill Innocence Project, a Northwestern program that enables journalism students to investigate serious convictions in which there is evidence that the outcome was unjust, is widely credited with causing Republican Gov. George Ryan to issue the moratorium on executions in 2000 while he created a commission to study the issue.

The Innocence Project has freed five innocent men from death row.

The governor’s move marked the second time this week that the Innocence Project has celebrated the decision of a state and national leaders. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Henry “Hank” Skinner has the right to request testing of DNA evidence that may prove he is innocent. The Innocence Project has been working on the case of Skinner, a 48-year-old man on death row in Texas, for 10 years.

In an e-mail to Innocence Project students, alumni and supporters, Protess called it an “amazing week for justice.”

Illinois is the 16th state to end capital punishment. The ban will officially take effect July 1.

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