Yesterday I was in Springfield, Illinois when Governor Quinn signed into law the abolition of the death penalty in this state and commuted the sentences of the fifteen death row inmates here to life without parole. When the bill first passed, I wrote exhorting the governor to sign the bill. Like some, I felt it was taking an inordinate amount of time for him to make a decision on what to do. I stand corrected.
At the press conference yesterday after he had signed the bill, Governor Quinn was somber, thoughtful and very well informed. He made his points about his reasons with clarity and compassion saying -- as I also believe -- that people of good will can come out on this issue with differing points of view. To quote Governor Quinn:
Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case. For the same reason, I have also decided to commute the sentences of those currently on death row to natural life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole or release.
I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims' families in overcoming their pain and grief. To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims' families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold. But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain. Nothing can do that. We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims' families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.
There are those who strongly disagree with this decision. They have every right to do so, but I feel I must respond to some statements being made by some prosecutors. Robert Berlin, the state's attorney in DuPage County, west of Chicago, called it a "victory for murderers." He also complained that without the death penalty it will be more difficult to essentially coerce pleas to life without parole, and that, he maintains, is bad. This is no victory for murderers, it is a victory for justice and compassion for victims and their families.
Another opponent of the bill, Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons, who said he has charged people with murder more than 300 times in his career, said he could not have gotten some murderers to plead guilty without the threat of the death penalty. It is not ethical to coerce a plea. Sure, a defendant should know what he or she is risking by going to trial, that makes sense, but using the power to kill as a threat is unconscionable. The death penalty's use as a club or a political tool is exactly what is so objectionable about it for many.
Governor Quinn actually listened to everyone, he thought long and hard about what he learned, and he has asked us all to step away from vengeance, from error and heartache and instead to concentrate on preventing violence and assisting the victims of violence. We can do that, can't we?