CHICAGO - In a historic and landmark decision to abolish the death penalty by the Illinois state Senate passed earlier this week lawmakers in both chambers are poised to make Illinois the first state to end capital punishment since 2009.
The Illinois Senate voted 32-25, Jan. 11, in favor of abolishing the death penalty, which came after the House approved the ban last week. The bill, SB 3539, will now be sent to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's desk for his signature.
Quinn has not said whether he will sign the measure into law. He has stated that he plans to review the bill "very carefully," calling it an important legislation that deserves a lot of study.
No one in Illinois has been executed for more than a decade after former Republican Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium on the death sentence in 2000. Ryan's decision came after a series of revelations that people had been sent to Death Row who were later found to be innocent. More than a dozen of death row inmates were exonerated. Days before Ryan left office in 2003 he granted clemency to 164 Death Row inmates to ensure the system would not wrongly put anyone to death.
"How can you possibly give the power of life and death to a prosecutor, who even if he does everything correctly, there's still that possibility that you're going to strap an innocent person to a gurney," said Gordon "Randy" Steidl.
Steidl spent 17 years behind bars, including 12 on Death Row, after he was wrongfully convicted of a 1986 double-murder. He pleaded with lawmakers this week to repeal the death penalty, a system that nearly cost him his life and has taken away almost two decades of it.
"And we know we have in this country, we know we have executed innocent people in the past," he added. "The problem is, after they're executed, the state no longer cares. The evidence is there, we have an alternative, and that's life without parole and we don't risk the possibility of executing an innocent person. Because you know sooner or later if we have this system we will."
The measure's current sponsor State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat from Chicago, said ending the death penalty is the right thing to do because the system has caused too many mistakes. "We have an historic opportunity... to join the civilized world and end this practice of risking putting to death innocent people," he said. Illinois ought to be embarrassed by its track record of wrongful convictions, noted Raoul. "Because if an execution were to take place, it takes place in the name of the people of Illinois."
During the senate debate others said the system is broken and Illinois should break company with countries like Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Saudi Arabia and others that allow the death penalty.
"We're here because we've seen countless examples of the fact that the system has failed," said State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from Olympia Fields. "This question is not about the people who we know did it. It's about the people who were convicted who didn't. It's about our system of justice is actually predicated upon the protection of innocent and executing one innocent person is too high a price to pay."
Supporters are hopeful that Gov. Quinn will sign the bill. They urge people to call Quinn's office at 217-782-6830 and leave a message telling him how excited and happy they are that Illinois is moving in the right direction of ending capital punishment for good.
Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, once a death penalty supporter, recently spoke out for its abolition, saying it's so shot through with racism and politics that it cannot be fixed.
Illinois has executed 12 people since the mid-1970s. Fifteen people are currently on death row in the state.
Thirty-five states continue to authorize the death penalty. Illinois would become the 16th state to abolish it, if signed into law. In recent years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have outlawed the death sentence. Other states where legislation has been introduced to ban the death penalty include Colorado and Kansas.
The number of executions in the U.S. dropped 12 percent last year. Advocates of ending the death sentence say more needs to be done to ban the broken system nationwide.
Photo: This Jan. 21, 2003 file photo shows an unidentified death row inmate in his cell in the North Condemned Unit at Pontiac Correctional Institution in Pontiac, Ill. In 2000, then Gov. George Ryan made Illinois the first state with the death penalty to suspend executions, after 13 condemned prisoners were freed for wrongful convictions. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)