UPDATED 03/09/11 1:17 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Gov. Pat Quinn has signed legislation ending the death penalty in Illinois.
The governor also commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life in prison.
“This is the most difficult decision that I have made as governor,” Quinn said at the state capitol in Springfield on Wednesday. “I studied everything to the best of my ability and followed my conscience.”
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When the ban takes effect on July 1, Illinois will be the 16th state in the U.S. to abolish the death penalty. Until then, prosecutors may continue to seek the death penalty in murder cases and judges and juries may continue to sentence convicted killers to death.
Quinn did not specifically say on Wednesday whether he would commute such future sentences to life in prison, although he did say, “I believe if we abolish the death penalty in Illinois, we should abolish it for everyone.”
The governor’s move to clear out death row was the second time in state history that a governor has done so by commuting the sentence of every inmate who had been sentenced to death to life in prison
In 2003, then-Gov. George Ryan cleared out death row as he was leaving office, commuting the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison, citing concerns about flaws in the state’s capital punishment system.
Three years earlier, Ryan had enacted a moratorium on the death penalty and it has been in place ever since, even after a number of reforms were enacted to avoid mistakes in death penalty cases.
In signing the death penalty ban on Wednesday, Quinn cited the state’s long history of mistakes in death penalty cases, pointing out that 20 former Illinois death row inmates have been set free after they were later exonerated.
“We have tried over and over again to come up with a perfect system that makes no mistakes with respect to carrying out the death penalty.” “I think we have to come to the realization that it is not possible to create a perfect, mistake-free death penalty system.”
Quinn said he believes a sentence of life without the possiblity of parole is a just punishment for criminals who commit the most heinous murders.
“We need to have punishment for those that commit those crimes that is never-ending,” Quinn said.
The governor also offered a message to the families of murder victims, saying “there are no words in the English language or any language to relieve your pain and I understand that.”
“It’s impossible, I’m sure, to ever be healed,” Quinn added, saying that the entire state shares their grief. “We want to be with you. You’re not alone in your grief.”
Quinn also said that he has established a new trust fund to provide support for the families of murder victims and to provide aid to local police departments in preventing murder. It will be funded with money that had previously been committed to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, which was created to provide defense attorneys and prosecutors access to sufficient resources to cover the costs of death penalty cases.
Two state lawmakers who sponsored the death penalty ban, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) and Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), were invited to the signing ceremony in Springfield, which was conducted in a private in Quinn’s office.
Yarbrough said before the signing that given how much pain the bill is likely to cause families of victims, it was appropriate to sign the bill into law without fanfare.
No one feels any sympathy for death row inmates, she said.
“There’s probably a real quiet place in hell for them when they leave this earth,” Yarbrough said, “but I don’t think Illinois – or any state for that matter – should be in the business of executing its citizens.”
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In January, state lawmakers approved a bill to end executions as a way to punish criminals, effective July 1. The legislation would not have affected the 15 inmates who were already on death row, but Quinn commuted their sentences to life in prison on Wednesday.
In the past, Quinn has said he supports the death penalty when properly applied. He said from the beginning that he wants to hear from constituents and would follow his conscience.
Asked to comment on the issue, Mayor Richard M. Daley said as a former prosecutor, he supports the death penalty. But he was not critical of Quinn’s choice to sign the law banning it.
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“I believe in DNA testing. It should be a part of every (jurisdiction). It prevents abuse,” Daley said. “That solves all the human issues.”
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel applauded Quinn’s decision, saying “It’s the right thing to do and I’m glad he made that decision. Obviously he thought hard about it.”
Meantime, DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin was outraged by Quinn’s decision, calling the death penalty ban “a victory for murderers across Illinois.”
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Berlin said he was especially incensed that Quinn commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates, particularly Brian Dugan, who was sentenced to death last year for the 1983 rape and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.
“Evidence in Brian Dugan’s case showed that many of his other rape victims, he spared their life because he was afraid of receiving the death penalty,” Berlin said.
Berlin said DuPage County prosecutors were still working on one case that could produce a death sentence. Gary Schuning, 28, is charged with killing his mother and during an argument in their Addison home in 2006.
He is also accused of calling an escort after killing his mother and then killing that woman, Kristi Hoenig, of Chicago, after the escort found a bloody knife in his bathroom.
Berlin said he would meet with his staff in the next two weeks to decide how to proceed.
Even before Quinn signed off on the death penalty ban, State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) had introduced legislation to bring back the death penalty, while reserving it for the worst of the worst: serial killers, and murderers of children, cops and witnesses.
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Dillard, who co-chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes the majority of Illinois residents still support the death penalty. And he said he supports a state wide death penalty referendum called for by State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst).
Dillard noted that death penalty abolition passed during a lame duck legislative session, suggesting the issue needs a fuller state wide discussion.
The senator said he respects Governor Quinn’s decision to sign the bill, even though he believes the death penalty should stay in place in limited circumstances. He said he’s moved a bit on the issue himself to demanding greater limits on the death penalty.
He wants to see the death penalty re-instated but with two additional safeguards:
1. It only be applied in the cases of especially heinous multiple murders or killings of children, cops and witnesses.
2. It be applied only after a state wide panel of judges and prosecutors has agreed that the capitol punishment is called for and that the killing is being done in a matter that’s fair and balanced by race, gender and geography.
In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, in the wake of a scandal of innocent people being sent to death row.
Just before he left office in 2003, Ryan also commuted the sentences of everyone on death row at the time and released four condemned men who alleged they had been victims of torture by Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
The last execution in Illinois was in 1999. Andrew Kokoraleis was executed by lethal injection for the 1982 kidnapping, rape and murder of a woman in Elmhurst.
From 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, to the moratorium in 2000, the state freed 13 men from death row and executed 12, according to published reports.
During his campaign last year, Quinn said he would keep the moratorium in place, while opponent Bill Brady said he would lift it.
Considering the track record in Illinois, Yarbrough said abolishing the death penalty is the right course of action.
“We’ve had 20 people to be exonerated from death row, and that gives pause,” Yarbrough said.