Recent Legislative Activity

NEW VOICES: Retired Federal Judge Urges Illinois Governor to Sign Repeal Bill

Retired Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin recently wrote in the Huffington Post urging Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to sign a bill that would repeal the death penalty.  He wrote, "I am certain we could all list persons who committed outrageous and despicable crimes that we would want executed. Many of us want revenge, retribution and the ultimate punishment in those cases, but, nonetheless, I am opposed to the death penalty."  Judge Sarokin highlighted deterrence, costs, racial discrimination, the risk of wrongful executions and personal moral views as among the most significant reasons for his opposition.  He believes that, “deterrence plays no part whatsoever. Persons contemplating murder do not sit around the kitchen table and say I won't commit this murder if I face the death penalty, but I will do it if the penalty is life without parole. I do not believe persons contemplating or committing murder plan to get caught or weigh the consequences.”  Reall full article below.

NEW VOICES: Senator Durbin of Illinois Changes Stance on Death Penalty

U. S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois recently announced at a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., that he has changed his life-long opinion on the death penalty and now favors its abolition. Sen. Durbin, who is the second-ranking member of the U.S. Senate as the assistant majority leader, said that his reflections over many years brought about an evolution in his thinking about capital punishment, particularly with respect to its unfairness and the risk of executing the innocent.  He noted, "There are many people who commit heinous crimes, and I’d be the first to stand up with emotion and say they should lose their lives. But when I look at the unfairness of it, the fact that the poor and people of color are most often the victims when it comes to the death penalty, and how many cases we've gotten wrong now that we have DNA evidence to back us up, I mean, it just tells me life imprisonment is penalty enough." In early January, the Illinois General Assembly presented Governor Pat Quinn with a bill to end the death penalty in Illinois.

NEW VOICES: Illinois Police Chief Calls for End to State's Death Penalty

Police Chief Charles A. Gruber of St. Charles, Illinois, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement, recently stated that "the death penalty does nothing to keep us safe," and should be abolished.  Chief Gruber served as president of both the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He worked with national organizations for over a decade to devise reforms to make the death penalty effective and fair but now now believes Illinois will always leave open the possibility of executing an innocent person and will subject murder victims’ families to excruciatingly long proceedings. In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, he wrote, “I am grateful that SB 3539 not only gets rid of a system that has proven itself too flawed to fix, but that also puts the savings from the death penalty where they are desperately needed: law enforcement training. The best thing we can do to ensure the safety of our communities and men and women in uniform is to see that law enforcement have the resources and training they need to do their job well.”  Read full op-ed below.

Outgoing Pennsylvania Governor Urges State Legislators to Review Death Penalty

On January 14, in one of his final acts as governor, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell wrote a letter to the state General Assembly urging legislators to consider replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole if it cannot be made more effective than it has been. Gov. Rendell wrote that the death penalty in Pennsylvania is not a reality: “As a former District Attorney and as a death penalty supporter, I believe the death penalty can be a deterrent – but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously. However, a 15-, 20-, or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and the actual execution is no deterrent… To criminals on the street, our death penalty is simply not a reality.”  The governor said the current system was frustrating to both police and victims' families.  He said if the process could not be streamlined, while still protecting defendants' needs for a thorough appeal, it might be time to consider abolition: “If you conclude that there is no avenue to achieve this [careful streamlining], then I ask you to examine the merits of continuing to have the death penalty on the books – as opposed to the certainty of a life sentence without any chance of parole, pardon or commutation.”  Read full text of Governor's statement below.

ILLINOIS LEGISLATURE VOTES TO REPEAL THE DEATH PENALTY

On January 11, the Illinois Senate, by a vote of 32-25, joined the House in voting to repeal the state’s death penalty and re-allocate funds in the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to a fund for murder victims’ services and law enforcement. If signed into law, Illinois would become the 16th state to stop capital punishment and would mark the fewest states with the death penalty since 1978. Since 1976, Illinois has carried out 12 executions.  In the same period, 20 inmates have been exonerated from the state’s death row, the second highest number in the United States. The state has not had an execution since 1999, and since then, use of the death penalty has declined sharply. In the 1990s, the state averaged over 10 death sentences a year. In 2009 and 2010, the state imposed only one death sentence each year.  The bill must be signed by Governor Pat Quinn in order to become law.

Illinois House Votes to Repeal Death Penalty

By a vote of 60-54 on January 6, the Illinois House approved SB3539, a bill to repeal the death penalty and use the money saved to assist victims' families and improve law enforcement.  The action came eleven years after a moratorium on executions was put in place by then Governor George Ryan.  The repeal bill will now move to the Senate for a vote as early as next week.  In January 2000, Ryan ordered the moratorium following revelations that more than a dozen innocent people had been sentenced to death in the state. In 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life before leaving office.  Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz, who voted for the repeal, commented, “I believe the history of the death penalty in Illinois demonstrates that we are not in a position to get it right 100 percent of the time.” If the bill is approved in the senate, it will go to Governor Pat Quinn for his possible signature.

NEW VOICES: Montana Assistant Attorney General Calls for Death Penalty Repeal

Montana Assistant Attorney General John Connor has voiced support for a legislative measure that would abolish capital punishment in his state. Stating his belief that the death penalty does not deter crime and is expensive, Connor told the Montana House Judiciary Committee, "It seems to me to be the ultimate incongruity to say we respect life so much that we're going to dedicate all our money, all our resources, our legal expertise and our entire system to try and take your life. . . . Frankly, I just don't think I can do it anymore." Senator Dan Harrington, who sponsored this year's repeal measure, added that it is wrong to teach children "that to prevent violence we beget violence." He also noted that the death penalty is costly and unfair.

Maryland Commission Recommends Abolition of Death Penalty

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted on November 12 to recommend the abolitiion of the death penalty in the state. In a 13-7 vote, the Commission cited the possibility that an innocent person could be mistakenly executed, as well as geographical and racial disparities in how it is used. Benjamin Civiletti, the chair of the commission and a former U.S. attorney general, said, “It’s haphazard in how it’s applied, and that’s terribly unfair.”

The Chairman also shared that he does not have a moral opposition to the death penalty but is against it because of cost, the potential for an innocent person to be executed, and jurisdictional disparities. Panel members concluded that there was a “real possibility” an innocent person could someday be executed in Maryland. A commission member who was on death row for a murder he did not commit, Kirk Bloodsworth, said, “In 1985, I went to death row for two years.” He continued, “Now if that’s not real, I don’t know what is.” He was later cleared by DNA evidence.

The panel also found no persuasive evidence to support deterrence of homicides in Maryland through the use of the death penalty. A report will be prepared for the General Assembly by December 15 explaining the Commission's recommendation and including the minority point of view.

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