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Illinois House votes to abolish death penalty

Thursday, January 06, 2011

RAY LONG AND TODD WILSON, CHICAGO TRIBUNE | LINK TO ARTICLE

The death penalty would be abolished in Illinois under legislation the House approved for the first time Thursday, but the ban's fate is uncertain in the final days of the General Assembly's lame-duck session.


The historic vote comes 10 years after then-Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty following revelations that several people sent to death row were not guilty.

The capital punishment ban still has some hurdles to clear. But the vote represented a growing recognition that DNA and improved technology in criminal science have exposed an uncertainty in verdicts that cannot be reversed once a death sentence is carried out.

"You can release an innocent person from prison, but you can't release them from the grave," said Gordon "Randy" Steidl, who spent 17 years in prison, including 12 on death row, after he was wrongfully convicted of a 1986 double-murder.

The partial victory for death-penalty opponents did not come easily. The proposal fell one vote short of passing the first time, but got the extra vote needed a short time later.

Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, said she thought she had the votes to pass the plan on the first go-round, but that some "didn't find their way."

During the second vote, several lawmakers either switched positions or failed to vote. But in the end, supporters collected the 60 votes they needed to pass the House. Fifty-four House members voted against it.

Opponents argued that the death penalty should remain in place as the ultimate punishment for the most heinous crimes. They pointed to a recent spate of murders of Chicago police officers, saying cop killers should not be let off with life in prison.

Republican Rep. Jim Sacia, a former FBI agent from Pecatonica, said threatening defendants with the death penalty often can make them talk to authorities to help solve crimes.

"Don't take that tool from law enforcement," Sacia said.

Others said they supported the idea of the death penalty, but couldn't in good faith allow for executions when it has been proved that Illinois' system is broken.

"I could administer the death penalty myself to a cop killer or a serial murder and sleep like a baby at night if I knew without a doubt of their guilt," said Rep. Susana Mendoza, D-Chicago, who is running for city clerk. "(But) we've come horrifyingly close to executing innocent men, and it could happen again."

The measure now goes to the Illinois Senate, where President John Cullerton is personally opposed to the death penalty, but the chamber's overall support for the legislation still may be a few votes short. But backers hoped the House's dramatic action would generate additional votes in the Senate.

Fifteen people currently are on death row in Illinois.

Thirty-five states now have the death penalty, and Illinois would become the 16th state not to lawmakers approved abolishing it. Three states — New York, New Jersey and New Mexico — have eliminated the death penalty in recent years, said Ryan Keith, a spokesman for the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

No abolition legislation had passed either house in Illinois since executions were reinstated in 1977. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death-penalty guidelines of 40 states, including Illinois, in 1972.

Support for abolishing executions in Illinois has grown since Ryan declared the moratorium. His action followed a Tribune series that pointed out flaws and inequities in the prosecution and defense of Illinoisans facing a death sentence and the exoneration of several people placed on death row.

Illinois took a number of steps to reform the death-penalty process in Illinois, including taping interrogations under a proposal forged by President Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois Senate. More money was made available to help provide resources to beef up the defense in death-penalty cases.

Only days before he left office in January 2003, Ryan granted clemency to 164 death row inmates even though sources on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board said the panel recommended clemency for no more than 10.

After Thursday's second House vote, a joyous Yarbrough exited the chamber with tears in her eyes, and gave a big hug to Steidl.

"I did this for you," she said.

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