It happened. Early this afternoon, at his office in Springfield, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Senate Bill 3539, ending Illinois’ dysfunctional and broken death penalty system. The measure ends an embarrassing history in Illinois, during which 20 men sentenced to death have been exonerated and released from the state’s death row.
Senate Bill 3539 was approved by the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate in dramatic votes in early January. With the governor’s signature, the measure will become law July 1.
Like many states, Illinois acted quickly to renew the death penalty after the Supreme Court of the United States found the death penalty unconstitutional as applied in 1972. After a false start resulting in an adverse state Supreme Court ruling, Illinois’ new death penalty statute was reinstated in the late 1970s.
Even before the state could execute its first prisoner (Charles Walker in 1990), two men were exonerated and released from death row. In 1994, two more executions took place (including the notorious John Wayne Gacy), but the following year saw three more men released from death row. A trend had developed. Concerns about the death penalty in our state were accelerating.
The Chicago Tribune published a series of exposes on flaws in the death penalty system. The names of exonerated individuals became household names — the Ford Heights Four, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. By January 1999 the evidence was overwhelming, leading then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to place a moratorium on executions in Illinois. The governor also initiated a process for reform, creating a commission on capital punishment that produced a great number of recommendations for improving and “fixing” the system — most of which never were implemented.
Still more exonerations followed, leading Gov. Ryan to commute all death sentences in the state before he left office. The tide had turned. Since 2000, there have been 8,000 murders in the State of Illinois, and only 17 convictions resulting in a death penalty.
Questions still lingered. In two high profile cases, Kevin Fox and Jerry Hobbs were charged with the vicious murders of their own daughters, only to be later exonerated and released. All the reforms and all the promise of reform could not fix the problems in Illinois’ broken death penalty system.
It was against this backdrop that the debate on Senate Bill 3539 began late in the fall of 2010. After more than a decade of struggle, after 20 exonerations, after all the work and toil, today the death penalty system in Illinois has been eliminated. It is a good day for justice.