CHICAGO (Reuters) - The governor of Illinois signed a law on Wednesday ending capital punishment, saying it was impossible to fix a system that wrongly condemned 20 men who were later found to be innocent.
When the law signed by Democratic Governor Pat Quinn takes effect on July 1, Illinois will become the fourth state in the past two years to dispense with the death penalty after New York, New Jersey and New Mexico.
“To have a consistent, perfect death penalty system ... that’s impossible in our state,” Quinn told reporters. “I think it’s the right and just thing to abolish the death penalty and punish those who commit heinous crimes -- evil people -- with life in prison without parole and no chance of release.”
The ultimate punishment will remain an option in 34 states and for federal inmates. No other Western democracies carries out executions.
“It is naive to think that we haven’t executed an innocent person. We stop looking after they’re executed.” said Ron Safer, an attorney who has defended death penalty cases.
Quinn also commuted to life in prison the death sentences of all 15 inmates currently on the state’s Death Row, and established a trust fund for murder victims’ families.
Before making the decision to endorse the ban, Quinn said he listened to all sides of the issue, including relatives of murder victims, and read articles, a book by Chicago’s late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and the Bible.
State prosecutors and some lawmakers lobbied Quinn to keep capital punishment, and Republicans introduced a bill to retain executions for the worst crimes.
Illinois State Sen. William R. Haine, a Democrat and former prosecutor, said he was “disappointed” by Quinn’s decision. He referred to mass murderers like John Wayne Gacy or Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as meriting capital punishment.
“We’re removing from the people a remedy for great evil, whether it’s an act of mass murder through terrorism or wanton cruelty, rape and murder of children, or butchery,” said Haine. “These crimes cry out for justice, and not vengeance. I‘m talking about justice.”
Haine said the issue of whether to ban the death penalty should have gone to Illinois voters in a referendum, so the citizens could decide. He also thought Quinn missed an opportunity to enact more reforms of the system.
Eighteen nations executed prisoners in 2009, with China executing “thousands,” according to Amnesty International. The United States ranked behind Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in the number of executions that year.
“I think there is an international trend away from the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, citing some steps being taken in China.
Dieter said Illinois’ move was significant because the state had been active in executing prisoners. Declaring the state’s death penalty system “broken” former Republican Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium in 2000.
Ryan gained international acclaim from death penalty opponents by clearing the state’s Death Row in 2003, saying he was appalled by wrongful convictions exposed by the Chicago Tribune newspaper and Northwestern University journalism students. The errors were blamed on forced confessions, unreliable witnesses, and incompetent legal representation.
Barack Obama, then a Democratic state senator in Illinois, was among the legislators who engineered subsequent reforms that included videotaping of confessions.
“No state had tried harder to fix its death penalty system, but after 10 years it became patently clear that it was broken beyond repair,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a statement.
Haine disagreed, arguing that the Illinois reforms have been effective and that since 2003, no recent Death Row case was alleged to be flawed.
The number of executions in the United States dropped 12 percent last year to 46, and were down from 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Center said there have been 138 exonerations of Death Row inmates since 1973.
Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Andrew Stern; Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune