CHICAGO (Reuters) - The governor of Illinois signed a law on Wednesday abolishing capital punishment, an issue that has roiled the state since a series of wrongful convictions led to a decade-long moratorium on executions.
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 after New York, New Jersey and New Mexico to dispense with the death penalty.
The ultimate punishment will still be an option in 34 states and for federal inmates. Most Western democracies no longer carry out executions.
“In Illinois there is no question in my mind that abolishing the death penalty is the right thing,” in light of the exonerations, said Ron Safer, an attorney who has defended death penalty cases.
“It is naive to think that we haven’t executed an innocent person. We stop looking after they’re executed.”
Quinn also commuted the death sentences of all 15 prisoners on the state’s Death Row.
According to Amnesty International, there were 2,390 people executed in 25 nations in 2008, with China executing more than half, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Pakistan and Iraq.
Illinois has not executed anyone since 1999 and former Republican Governor George Ryan gained international acclaim from capital punishment opponents when he halted executions in 2000.
Ryan pronounced the state’s death penalty system “broken,” saying he was appalled by more than a dozen faulty 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.
Two days before he left office in 2003, Ryan cleared the state’s Death Row by commuting to life in prison the sentences of 164 inmates.
“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.
Cox said this is also true in other death penalty states, including Connecticut, Maryland and Montana, where a death penalty ban is under consideration.
“Governor Quinn has shown great human rights leadership by recognizing the wisdom of abolishing an antiquated, ineffective and inhumane punishment.”
Barack Obama, then a Democratic state senator in Illinois, was among the legislators who engineered subsequent reforms that included videotaping of confessions.
Quinn invited both sides to discuss whether he should sign the bill, or modify it. Prosecutors in the state and relatives of murder victims urged him to keep the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, while opponents including Sister Helen Prejean lobbied him to sign the law abolishing the practice.
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