Illinois embraces “a culture of life” and outlaws the death penalty
“The historic moment has arrived!” These jubilant words from the website of World Coalition collaborator Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty echo the feelings of the entire abolitionist community, following the news that the state of Illinois has become the 16th US state to outlaw the death penalty.
Although the Illinois legislature approved the abolition bill nearly two months ago, Governor Quinn had been undecided, hearing the arguments of both pro- and anti-death penalty supporters. There was intense lobbying from the two sides, with well-known national and international figures working alongside the tireless abolition campaigns of the Illinois Coalition and others. The bill, which also commuted 15 death sentences to life in prison, was finally signed into law by the governor on March 9, 2011, just one week before it was due to expire.
“A difficult decision, the choice between life and death”
“This was not a decision to be made lightly, or a decision I came to without deep personal reflection,” said Governor Quinn at the signing ceremony. Like his predecessor, former Governor George Ryan, Governor Quinn has stated that he supports the death penalty for the “worst crimes”, although both he and Ryan came to the conclusion that the Illinois death penalty system was “arbitrary, capricious and immoral.”
After a detailed two-year study showing significant errors, prejudices and discrepancies in the system, Governor Ryan had imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state which has lasted until the present. At his departure in 2003, he emptied the Illinois state death row, commuting over 100 sentences to life imprisonment.
“We are making a dent!”
The campaigns of the Illinois Coalition and other groups were a key factor in the governor’s decision – on the Illinois Coalition site was posted: “We are making a dent! The governor has received around 700 calls in favor of the death penalty… and around 12,000 in favor of abolition!”
Click here to watch a video interview on the Illinois Coalition’s campaign
Among the callers in favor of abolition were South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, actor Martin Sheen, and other national and international public figures.
Illinois Senator Kwame Raoul, another key figure in the abolition campaign, said that “Illinois has joined the world of civilization, putting an end to the suppression of innocent lives”.
“A turning point”
Shari Silverstein, executive director of World Coalition member Equal Justice, called the law “a turning point. Today sends a message that, after all that effort, the ultimate conclusion of Illinois’ law makers was that [a death penalty system] cannot work.” Silverstein also pointed out that “Illinois is the first state to do something positive with the funds that were being wasted on the death penalty – by giving it to public safety and victims’ programs.”
Illinois becomes the fourth US state in four years to abolish the death penalty, and there seem to be several other states ready to follow suit. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pheifer noted that “it’s time for Ohio to at least entertain the discussion of whether or not we are well served by having a death penalty.”
Maryland, Montana, Connecticut, Kansas and Florida have also been indicating recently that they are seriously considering the idea of legal abolition.