U.S. News

Illinois poised to abolish death penalty

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Illinois was poised to become the first state since 2009 to abolish the death penalty after the state Senate on Tuesday approved the ban and sent it to Democratic Governor Pat Quinn for his signature.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan in Chicago, January 30, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress

The Senate vote came after House approval late last week. The Senate vote was 32-25.

Illinois has not executed anyone for more than a decade after former Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in January 2000 following a series of revelations that people had been sent to Death Row who were later found to be innocent.

“We’ve had 20 innocent people on Death Row,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “It’s time to be done with the moratorium and do the right thing.”

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the current measure’s sponsor, said too many mistakes had been made in Illinois.

“We have an historic opportunity... to join the civilized world and end this practice of risking putting to death innocent people,” Raoul said before the vote.

Governor Quinn’s spokeswoman, Annie Thompson, said he plans to review the legislation once it arrives at his desk. Quinn has said he supports the death penalty for the worst crimes. He has also said it is important that innocent people are not executed and that he would keep the moratorium in place.

State Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, a Democrat who supported the ban, said he believes Quinn will “likely sign” the ban.

“We hope and expect that he will sign the bill,” said Debra Erenberg, Midwest regional director of Amnesty International. “There has been a lot of movement away from the death penalty in recent years.”

Among those freed from Illinois’ Death Row after being found innocent were Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were sentenced to death for raping and killing a 10-year-old Chicago area girl, Jeanine Nicarico. They stayed in prison for years even after another man, Brian Dugan, already in jail for raping and killing another girl and a woman, admitted to the crime.

Dugan has since been convicted of Nicarico’s 1983 murder.

Other Illinois prisoners who were freed from Death Row said they were tortured into confessions by police.

Erenberg said she is glad the shooting deaths in Arizona over the weekend apparently did not turn Illinois senate votes away from the ban.

“In reality, repealing the death penalty allows for so many resources to be used to prevent crimes and to support victim’s families after crimes,” Erenberg said.

Opponents of lifting the ban include the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, which has said the death penalty is needed for law enforcement and to achieve justice.

Some senators who opposed the ban called for putting the question to Illinois voters.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have no death penalty. In 2009, New Mexico was the last state to abolish the death penalty. There have been no executions in Illinois since 1999. The number of executions in the U.S. dropped 12 percent last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Other states where legislation has been introduced to ban the death penalty include Colorado and Kansas.

Editing by Greg McCune and Jerry Norton