On Tuesday, January 11, the Illinois Senate acted to address a national embarrassment for the state — our failed death penalty system. By a vote of 32 to 25, the Senate passed Senate Bill 3539, which repeals the death penalty in Illinois. The bill is now sitting on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk waiting for his signature to become law.
This action comes nearly 11 years after then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Gov. Ryan was alarmed by a spate of exonerations from Illinois’ death row — including one man, Anthony Porter, who came within a few hours of being executed.
The Senate’s action followed a long day of debate, beginning with an extraordinary hearing in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee featuring a death row exoneree, the sister of a murder victim who argued for repealing the death penalty and two prominent state’s attorneys, including Anita Alvarez, State’s Attorney of Cook County. Proponents made a straightforward argument — the death penalty system is broken upon repair, it costs too much for our financially troubled state and it was not a deterrent to crime.
Opponents focused on process, claiming they did not know if the repeal measure could be considered before the new General Assembly was sworn in, and that the “people” had not been heard from. The process arguments were easily rebutted, as senators reminded repeal opponents that the discussion over the death penalty has been at a fever pitch in Illinois for more than a decade. Additionally, the prosecutors seemed to ignore the fact that every major newspaper in the state has covered the issue and opined about the need for abolition — including an editorial in Tuesday morning Chicago’s Tribune. Presumably, the prosecutors did not think that their constituents read the newspaper.
For nearly two hours, senators engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on the Senate floor on the problems of the death penalty system in our state. Many opponents of abolition argued that reforms put in place after the moratorium was established had “fixed” problems in the system. These arguments ignored the real life stories of Jerry Hobbs and Kevin Fox, two innocent men who were wrongly charged with murdering their children and then released due to their innocence after long detentions. Many senators — particularly chief sponsor Kwame Raoul — made the point that cases such as Hobbs’ and Fox’s show the reforms did not protect against these outrages.
Finally, the Senate voted. The audience held their breath, and then let out a collective exhale of relief and joy. The bill is now before Gov. Pat Quinn for approval.