After two decades of debate about the risk of executing an innocent person, Illinois abolished the death penalty on Wednesday, a decision that was certain to fuel renewed calls for other states to do the same.
Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat who has long supported capital punishment, looked drained moments after signing the historic legislation. Lawmakers sent him the measure back in January, but Quinn went through two months of intense personal deliberation before acting. He called it the most difficult decision he has made as governor.
“If the system can’t be guaranteed, 100-percent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system,” Quinn said. “It cannot stand.”
Illinois becomes the 16th state in the US without a death penalty more than a decade after former governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions out of fear that the justice system could make a deadly mistake.
Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 men remaining on death row. They will now serve life in prison with no hope of parole.
New Jersey eliminated its death penalty in 2007. New Mexico followed in 2009, although new Republican governor Susana Martinez wants to reinstate the death penalty.
In New York, a court declared the state’s law unconstitutional in 2004.
In his comments, Quinn returned often to the fact that 20 people sent to death row had seen their cases overturned after evidence surfaced that they were innocent or had been convicted improperly.
Death penalty opponents hailed Illinois’ decision and predicted it would influence other states.
“This is a domino in one sense, but it’s a significant one,” said Mike Farrell, the former MASH star who is now president of Death Penalty Focus in California.
The executive director of a national group that studies capital punishment said Illinois’ move carries more weight than states that halted executions but had not used the death penalty in many years.
“Illinois stands out because it was a state that used it, reconsidered it and now rejected it,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
Quinn’s decision incensed many prosecutors and relatives of crime victims. Robert Berlin, the state’s attorney in DuPage County, west of Chicago, called it a “victory for murderers.”
Quinn “realized that it’s a righteous and a moral decision to end this system that almost took my life,” said Gordon “Randy” Steidl, who spent 12 years on death row after being wrongly convicted in the 1986 murder of two newlyweds.
In the future, “there won’t be any more Randy Steidls that are standing in a court of law that are innocent and facing a sentence of death. At least they’ll be alive to prove their innocence on down the road,” he said.