Governor Quinn: Sign the Abolition Bill

01/18/2011 11:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Andrea Lyon Dean of Valparaiso University Law School, author and professor.

After over thirty years defending death cases in Illinois, I never thought I would see this day: the Illinois Senate joined the House in voting to repeal the state's death penalty and re-allocate funds remaining in the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to a fund for murder victims, services and law enforcement. This will become the law if Governor Quinn signs the bill, and he should.

While the vote to repeal was not unanimous, votes never are. The peoples' representatives have spoken, and Governor Quinn should listen. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977,
Illinois has carried out 12 executions. In the same period, 20 inmates have been exonerated from the state's death row, the second-highest number in the United States. The state has not had an execution since 1999, the year before former Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after a series of exonerations exposed flaws in the system. In 2003, Governor Ryan issued a blanket commutation, reducing the sentences of 167 death row inmates to life and pardoning four inmates. Since then, use of the death penalty has declined sharply in Illinois. In the 1990s, the state averaged over 10 death sentences a year. In 2009 and 2010, the state imposed only one death sentence each year. This too is an indication of what the people want -- when offered the chance to impose death, most of the time, juries do not.

Many murder victims' families were among the strongest supporters of the repeal bill. In a letter to the Illinois General Assembly, murder victims' families and friends said,

"A legal system that wasn't bogged down with committing tremendous resources on capital cases could prosecute and sentence countless other crimes and take dangerous people off the streets before they commit murder. Dollars saved could be put toward counseling for victims of crime or other services we desperately need as we attempt to get on with our lives."

The letter was signed by more than 20 individuals who had loved ones murdered in Illinois.

Testimony from victims' families indicate that executions do not bring the promised sense of closure to murder victims' families -- and the long trial and appeal process just dredges up painful memories over and over. No one ever gets closure from something as dreadful as losing a loved one to violence -- but people do learn to live with their loss if they are given time to heal, and the support they need by way of counseling, help financially (like with burial expenses for example) and some peace. Indeed, this bill contemplates supporting them.

The high cost of the death penalty was also a concern highlighted in the legislative debate. Since 2003, the state has spent over $100 million on the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, a sum that represents only a portion of the costs associated with implementing the death penalty in Illinois -- that is because it is difficult to see all of the costs -- how much of a detective's time (and hence his salary) is devoted to a particular case? Or a prosecutor's?

As to deterrence, well, that simply doesn't happen. It might seem that the prospect of receiving a death sentence would deter would-be murderers from committing such offenses. However, many studies on deterrence and the death penalty do not support this idea, nor does the rate of murders in states with the death penalty. The murder rate in states that do not have the death penalty is consistently lower than in states with the death penalty. The South, which carries out over 80% of the executions in the United States, has the highest murder rate of the four regions. If you think about it, this makes sense: A person who is likely to commit a violent act is not the sort of person who does a cost benefit analysis. These crimes tend to be impulsive, or, as we have seen this week, the product of mental illness -- and as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik has said, a climate of violent divisive rhetoric.

I have written before about the difficulty in defending death cases. I won't reiterate those points here, but I will say this; the people have spoken, and this bill should be signed as soon as possible. Let us spend our precious resources on crime prevention, adequate policing, and community development and seek peace.

Abolishing the death penalty is good for citizens of Illinois, good for our budget, good for families of victims and good for our court system. It may even make our state safer.

Sign the bill now, Governor Quinn.