SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CBS) — Less than two hours after their first vote failed, Illinois House members voted Thursday evening to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.
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Late Thursday afternoon, the House voted 59-58 to abolish the death penalty, one vote short of passing the proposal. One representative, Rosemary Mulligan (R-Des Plaines) did not vote at the time.
But the chief sponsor, Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) used a parliamentary maneuver to pull the bill from the House floor to allow for a second vote and less than two hours later, the House approved the measure 60-54.
For the second, successful vote, Yarbrough made a personal plea to fence-sitting Rep. Pat Verschoore (D-Milan), who said he had no idea that his vote would prove decisive.
Verschoore said he has gone “back and forth” on the bill ever since it was introduced. In the end, he said the argument that convinced him was one he had actually heard from prison inmates who told him that some going to Death Row say their tribulations will soon be over, while those facing life sentences face decades “in a box.”
Regardless of why, Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty Executive Director Jeremy Schroeder said he is pleased that the bill passed.
“This is the first time the measure has come up for a vote in either chamber, and it’s the first time it has passed in either chamber,” he said.
The measure now goes to the Senate for a vote. Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, says he supports abolishing the death penalty after a historic House vote to repeal it. But the Chicago Democrat stopped short Thursday of saying he would ask other senators to support abolition because it’s a personal decision by individual lawmakers.
During a lengthy debate on the House floor, supporters said the death penalty needs to be abolished because too many innocent people have been sent to Death Row.
Former Gov. George Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000 after 13 Death Row inmates were exonerated and no Death Row inmates have been executed since then.
Rep. Susana Mendoza (D-Chicago), who said she has long been a staunch supporter of capital punishment, said she believes the death penalty should end because courts cannot correct a mistake if an innocent person is put to death.
“I could administer the death penalty myself to a cop killer or a baby killer without remorse,” Mendoza said. “But this debate for me is no longer about whether guilty killers deserve to die for their crimes. They do deserve to die.”
However, Mendoza added that, “we must accept the possibility of executing an innocent person and I’m not okay with that. None of us should be okay with that. … I can no longer stomach the idea of executing a potentially innocent person in order to make sure the guilty pay for their crimes.”
But opponents said lawmakers have already taken many steps in the past decade to reform the state’s death penalty system and ensure it is applied fairly. They pointed to reforms such as a law requiring videotaping of all interrogations in murder cases.
Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), a former prosecutor, said he believes death penalty reforms have worked to ensure a fair trial in capital cases.
“I am confident that these individuals were given more than due process. They were given super-process,” Durkin said. “We need to let this process work its way through the course.”
But supporters of repealing capital punishment said that numerous studies have showed that the death penalty is applied randomly across the state and that minorities and poor defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites and the affluent.
“The decision to have the death penalty in one case and not another, that is a random decision in the state of Illinois,” House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said. “That is no way to run a criminal justice system.”
Currie also noted that studies have shown that the death penalty has not served as a deterrent to violent crime.
Death penalty opponents questioned the findings of some of those studies.
“The death penalty is not random,” Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) said. “[Prosecutors] have to sit down with their office to decide what to do. It isn’t random, it isn’t willy-nilly. … They take great pride in their work … they review the case, they spend time with lifetime prosecutors … to determine if the evidence meets the criteria.”
Surprisingly, one lawmaker invoked Ryan’s own legal troubles during the debate, without mentioning his name.
Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) said that the death penalty is not necessarily the worst punishment a criminal can face.
“Being kept from a loved one who’s dying while you sit in a federal prison” might be considered a worse punishment than the death penalty, Davis said.
Ryan is serving a 6-1/2 year sentence in federal prison for corruption charges and is trying to get an early release or temporary furlough in order to visit his wife, Lura Lynn Ryan, who has been hospitalized with a severe infection. Doctors have said she likely has, at best, two weeks to live.
Contributing: Associated Press