The death penalty has been abolished in Illinois, but advocates say the fight isn’t over.
On March 9, Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 3539, which abolishes the death penalty and redirects money that would have been spent on capital cases toward services for families of murder victims and training for police. Even so, some death penalty opponents are taking the fight to other states and to the federal government, while others plan to fight efforts already under way to reinstate capital punishment in Illinois.
Former death row inmate Randy Steidl, who was convicted of a double murder in 1987 and exonerated in 2004, became a vocal opponent of the death penalty after his release, and he says he will continue to push for repeal of the death penalty elsewhere. Steidl works with Witness to Innocence, a group of exonerated death row survivors, to lobby state and federal legislators for abolition of capital punishment. His next stop, he says, will be Montana, where that state’s legislature is considering a similar repeal measure.
“There’s always going to be wrongful convictions, whether there’s a death row or not,” Steidl says. “We’ve seen guys exonerated after 30 years with DNA. If he was on death row, he wouldn’t have had 30 years to have that DNA test. That’s why people need to open their eyes and realize you can’t have an irreversible system when you know full well innocent people go to prison.”
Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says that, while he may soon be out of a job thanks to the repeal, the coalition will continue to work against capital punishment.
“Unfortunately, I think the only reward is unemployment for me,” Schroeder joked. “But we’ll see. We’re definitely making sure that we keep Illinois death penalty-free, and we are working with other states as well.”
Schroeder said efforts to reinstate the death penalty in limited circumstances, such as for murders of police, children, the elderly or disabled, are misguided.
“Everyone has the best intentions with that,” Schroeder concedes. “The problem is that any death penalty creates all the same problems. The death penalty just for a few people is still the death penalty. When we started, we had very few aggravating factors, and it has grown to the problems we have. Even in states that have a limited amount of death penalty factors, the same problems exist. That’s why we’ll continue to keep the education out there.”
Illinois’ new law officially takes effect July 1, but it won’t be the first time the state’s death penalty has been repealed. The 1972 Illinois Supreme Court case Moore v. Illinois invalidated capital punishment – following a similar case in the U.S. Supreme Court – because juries had full discretion in sentencing those convicted to death, leading to inconsistent application of the death penalty. Illinois reenacted a revised form of the death penalty in 1973, but the state Supreme Court again struck it down on constitutional grounds in 1975. The legislature reacted with a third death penalty statute in 1977, creating a system that stayed in place until the March 9 repeal. Illinois executed 12 inmates in that time.
Former governor George Ryan put a moratorium on the death penalty shortly before leaving office in 2000. Ryan cited the exoneration of former Illinois death row inmate Anthony Porter of Chicago, who came within 48 hours of execution before being exonerated and released, as one of the reasons for the moratorium. Porter is one of 20 people exonerated from death row in Illinois.
At a press conference to announce the signing of SB3539, Quinn wore a pained expression as he repeatedly mentioned his hours of study on the issue, reviewing death penalty cases, statistics and input from advocates on both sides. While campaigning for his first full term as governor in 2010, Quinn said he favored the death penalty.
“I felt at this time, at this place, at this moment in history, the best step forward for the State of Illinois was to abolish the death penalty,” Quinn said. “We all know that our state has had serious problems with respect to the system of the death penalty for many years. … I’ve concluded after looking at all the information I’ve received that it’s impossible to create a perfect system – one that is free of all mistakes, free of all discrimination with respect to race, economic circumstance or geography.”
In addition to approving the law, Quinn commuted the sentences of the state’s 15 death row inmates to life in prison without the possibility of parole or release. He will not support efforts to reinstate the death penalty in limited circumstances.
Randy Steidl, the 18th person to be exonerated from death row in Illinois, says he is relieved that the death penalty has been repealed, but the trauma of death row is still with him.
“Those feelings will never go away, for what they did to me and my family,” Steidl says. “Words can’t even describe it…I don’t think about yesterday; I think about today. If you let yesterday eat on you, it turns you into what they want you to be, and I refuse to let that happen. There’s nothing I can do about the past. I just have to look forward to the future.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.