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Protesters rallied to end the death penalty and get new trials for those who were wrongfully imprisoned in 2008.    

Quinn’s difficult decision highlights complicated realities of death penalty debate

by Gabrielle Levy
March 09, 2011

After nearly two months of consideration, Gov. Pat Quinn put his mind — and those of supporters for a ban on the death penalty — at ease.

Quinn signed the legislation in a private event Wednesday at the capitol, making official the abolition of death row executions that were halted 11 years ago with former Gov. George Ryan’s moratorium on executions.

The legislation did not affect the 15 men currently facing the death penalty in Illinois prisons, but the governor commuted their sentences to life without parole.

At the heart of his decision, and of the broader debate over the death penalty, was a propensity for inaccuracies in the trials of Illinois defendants eligible for capital punishment.

Diann Rust-Tierney, the executive director of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said that passing a ban in Illinois was especially critical because of faults that have been revealed in the state’s ability to deal with these cases.

“When we have a death penalty, we use it in such a way that’s almost haphazard,” Rust-Tierney said. “That’s why you have this convergence of concern in Illinois.”

“Illinois had to confront the issue,” she said. “Can we countenance a system that can’t tell the difference between the innocent and the guilty?”

Gov. Ryan declared the moratorium in 2000 after a number of death row inmates were found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were accused. The permanence of the punishment leaves no room for error, and supporters of the ban have long insisted that no conviction could ever be totally certain.

David Protess, the director of the Medill Innocence Project, which works to clear names of falsely condemned death row prisoners, said the ban’s signing brought a great day for justice.

“No innocent person will ever be executed in the state of Illinois,” Protess said. “No person will ever go to death row for a crime they did not commit.”

Quinn’s decision to commute the sentence of the current death row inmates to life without parole answers concerns that real, heinous crimes will go unpunished in the absence of the death penalty.

Protess said the victims and their families can take solace in the imposition of a life sentence in the absence of the death penalty.

“The 15 men who [were] on death row for crimes they did commit will never see a day of freedom,” he said. “It’s a fate worse than death.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the cost to the state for a life prison sentence is far less than for a death row case, which often involved expensive appeals and the extreme caution required before any inmate is executed.

“This can cost $5 to 10 million per execution,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Even a strong supporter of the death penalty might say it’s not worth the $5 million. Hire 100 new police officers instead; that’s what will make society safer.”

Even families of victims may be better served by a sentence of life without parole, since death sentences can be an extremely slow, frustrating process, Dieter said.

“What the victims want is not just the death penalty,” Dieter said. “You’ve got to have an appeal, an additional test. We won’t give them the death penalty because we can’t give them the quick death penalty.”

The Illinois ban is on the forefront of a national movement in which other states, such as Kansas, Montana and Colorado, could soon follow.

“It’s a signal that this conversation that we’ve been having about the death penalty is going to continue to take place on a very different plane than where it’s happened before,” Rust-Tierney said. “We’re approaching the issue from trying to find common ground.”

But Dieter warned that an end to capital punishment is far from a certainty.

“The death penalty has been around for 400 years in the United States, so any attempt to get rid of it will be resisted,” he said. “There’s a trend, but there’s been trends before.”