CHICAGO — Nearly a decade after a former governor dramatically cleared the state's death row, Gov. Pat Quinn will return Illinois to the center of the nation's death penalty debate in coming days when he decides whether to abolish executions in the state for good.
Quinn, who faces a March 18 deadline, has said his decision will be based on his conscience. But he has spent two months consulting with prosecutors, murder victims' families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders – including retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Sister Helen Prejean, the inspiration for the movie "Dead Man Walking" – as he weigh his options.
Personally, the Chicago Democrat brings a mixed record to the decision: Raised a Roman Catholic, he says he supports the death penalty when properly implemented. But he has upheld Illinois' moratorium on executions since taking office and holds many liberal views. He supports abortion rights and recently signed a bill legalizing civil unions for gay couples in Illinois.
Elected in November, two years after stepping in for the ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Quinn is known as a compromiser who often tries to please people, with mixed results. He can be unpredictable and took heat for what opponents called flip-flops.
While he has kept his deliberations close to the vest, some would be surprised if Quinn didn't take advantage of this chance to leave his mark on history by signing legislation ending capital punishment. He could take action on the bill as early as this week.
"I will be very startled and disappointed if he doesn't sign it," said Dr. Quentin Young, a longtime friend of Quinn's who worked with him in the past on advocating for universal health care.
Whatever Quinn decides to do will be closely watched. Illinois is one of 35 states to have the death penalty; 15 states and the District of Columbia do not, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
In 2009, New Mexico became the most recent state to repeal the death penalty, although new Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a longtime prosecutor, wants to reinstate it. Illinois currently does not carry out executions because of an 11-year-old moratorium.
"I've heard from many, many people of good faith and good conscience on both sides of the issue. And I've tried to be very meticulous and writing down notes and studying those notes and books and e-mails. They've really spoken from the heart. I've been very proud of the people of Illinois," Quinn said Wednesday in Springfield.
The moratorium was imposed in 2000 by then-Republican Gov. George Ryan after the death sentences of 13 men were overturned. Ryan called the state's capital punishment system "haunted by the demon of error" and cleared death row shortly before leaving office in 2003 by commuting the sentences of 167 condemned inmates to life in prison.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, prosecutors and some victims' families have appealed directly to Quinn to veto the bill lawmakers passed in January. They contend new safeguards, including videotaped interrogations and easier access to DNA evidence, have since been put in place to prevent innocent people from being executed. Death penalty opponents have long argued there's no guarantee that won't happen.
"For the families who have endured unfathomable suffering and anguish, their quest for justice boils down to this: One man, one pen and one piece of paper," wrote Joe Heinrich, whose sister and brother-in-law were beaten to death and their young son left for dead in their Chicago home in 1983, in a letter to Quinn urging him to veto the bill.
As Quinn mulls his decision, one factor he has to consider is what to do with the 15 people already on death row. Currently, offenders can still be sentenced to death although Illinois isn't carrying out executions because of the moratorium.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who was a sponsor of the abolition measure, said Quinn could sign the bill and simultaneously commute the sentences of the death row inmates to life in prison or he could keep the moratorium in place and decide later whether to commute their sentences. Raoul said it was "not likely" that Quinn would sign the bill to abolish the death penalty and then lift the moratorium so current death row inmates could be executed.
"As long as there are people on death row, he keeps the moratorium in place," Raoul predicted.
If Quinn vetoes the bill or tries to make changes to it, it will die because it was passed by an earlier General Assembly and new lawmakers can't act on it.
Even if he considers it a matter of conscience, Quinn runs a number of political risks with the decision. Among them is alienating the African-American community and lawmakers in the Legislature who voted for the abolition measure if he vetoes it, said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
The push to end the death penalty is just as strong as a competing one to maintain it. Raoul asked his colleagues to "join the civilized world" and end the practice. Websites for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty both have asked supporters to call Quinn and urge him to sign the bill.
"We want the governor to know that there is a lot of national support for a decision to sign the bill to repeal the death penalty," said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the national coalition.
Even Quinn's own lieutenant governor, Sheila Simon, a former southern Illinois prosecutor, has asked him to abolish capital punishment.
Prejean, who last month met with Quinn for 40 minutes in his Chicago office, said she encouraged him to sign the bill and commute the death sentences of the current death row inmates. Among other things, Prejean said having the death penalty doesn't make sense in a state in fiscal crisis like Illinois.
"To keep this expensive machinery of death going and keep it in the garage is just purely political symbolism that some politicians can say they're tough on crime. It has nothing to do with really solving crime and violent murders," she said.
Madigan, the Democratic attorney general, argued to Quinn that there are times when the death penalty is "an appropriate and just punishment."
"When the facts and the law establish that a defendant has committed a heinous murder or murders, we must seek a just punishment that fits the despicable nature of the crimes. In those cases, it is appropriate that a sentence of death be available for the judge and jury to consider," Madigan wrote.
Associated Press writer Zachary Colman in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.