On Thursday afternoon, the Illinois House of Representatives was a raucous place — with talk of a deal on a tax increase, Medicaid reform and proposed budget cuts all sweeping around the chamber, members created a cacophony of sound that echoed around the huge chamber. But late in the afternoon, as the House began to consider Senate Bill 3539 — a measure to end Illinois’ broken death penalty system — the chamber became hushed. Every member seemed to grasp the importance of the debate, coming after a decade in which the State of Illinois has operated under a death penalty moratorium because so many innocent men were released from death row.
Rep. Karen Yarbrough and other supporters made clear, concise points in favor of repeal. They noted that the state has spent more than $100 million over the past decade prosecuting death penalty cases, despite the fact that no one has been executed. They also made clear that the death penalty is not a deterrent and that supporting the death penalty means accepting the very real possibility that the state of Illinois will execute an innocent person. Perhaps most compelling were the voices of several previous supporters of the death penalty — including Reps. Susan Mendoza, Paul Froehlich and Mike Boland — who said that they no longer could support the risk of executing the innocent. It was compelling and moving.
Opponents of the bill trotted out two familiar but ultimately empty arguments. First they suggested that the only appropriate penalty for those who committed heinous crimes is the death penalty and relied repeatedly on gruesome references to murders in Illinois. These repeal opponents also pushed the notion that law enforcement needed the death penalty as a “tool” to coerce suspects to confess to particular acts. Yet one of the sad realities in Illinois is that we have seen a host of false confessions; confessions elicited by law enforcement using such “tools.”
The debate reached a crescendo when Rep. Yarbrough closed her argument saying that the House had a chance to make history and to close the book on Illinois’ failed death penalty system.
As the votes were being tabulated, everyone watched with anticipation as the “yes” votes inched up above 50 (with 60 necessary for passage) and then in shock as the count froze at 59 votes in favor. Rep. Yarbrough immediately asked for “postponed consideration” a technical procedure that allows the sponsor time to search for any additional, necessary votes.
After approximately an hour, the measure was called for a second vote where it reached the magic threshold of 60 votes.
So, by that slim margin, Senate Bill 3539 moves to the Senate where it is expected to be considered today or tomorrow (before the new legislature convenes on Wednesday).
Keep your fingers crossed. And keep those calls coming. Illinois may be about to make history.