Recent Legislative Activity


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.

EDITORIALS: New Hampshire's Concord Monitor Says "Abolish the Death Penalty"

Following the release of the report from the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, New Hampshire's Concord Monitor called for an end to capital punishment in the state. The Commission concluded a year of public hearings and careful study and chose by a 12-10 vote to recommend neither expanding nor abolishing the death penalty. However, the Monitor pointed out that the evidence presented to the commission was primarily in favor of repealing the death penalty. One of the many arguments against the death penalty considered by the Commission was its arbitrary nature. Outcomes of capital cases depend on the makeup of capital juries, the resources available to the defendant, and the potentially unequal skills of prosecutors and defense lawyers.  The editorial noted that former attorney general Phillip McLaughlin recalled a case in which he charged the wrong man with murder and another in which an investigator failed to share evidence that might have proved that someone else committed the crime. He voted to repeal the law.  The editorial concluded: "States are not infallible. A life wrongly taken by the state cannot be returned. But an innocent person serving life without parole can be freed. New Hampshire should join the states and the many nations that have progressed beyond capital punishment."  Read the full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Illinois--"Outlaw Death Penalty to Save Lives and Cash"

In a recent editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times supported the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois during the current legislative session.  The paper noted its past support for capital punishment:  "In the past, we've supported the death penalty as long as the legal system gives the accused a fair trial that results in a verdict of guilt beyond resonable doubt.  Sadly, in light of experiences in recent years, that goal seems unrealistic."  Among the reasons for favoring abolition, the paper wrote that, "The death penalty is arbitrary - handed down in some cases but not in others with similar facts.  Even with the best safeguards in place, it's unreliable, with irreversible consequences.  And it's costly," consuming $100 million in the past 7 years.  As an alternative, the editorial noted that, "Like the death penalty, life without parole keeps heinous criminals off our streets, deters serious offenses and gives victims a sense that justice has been served."  Read full editorial below.

NEW VOICES: Ohio "Timeout from Death"-Part II

Although the number of executions in Ohio in the past two years is second only to those in Texas, there is considerable support in Ohio for a review of the entire system. Two former prison directors, Reginald Wilkinson and Terry Collins, agree that death row cases should be reviewed to decide whether they are the “worst of the worst.” Wilkinson (pictured), who was director from 1991 to 2006 and witnessed many executions, would take it even further: "I'm of the opinion that we should eliminate capital punishment," he said. "Having been involved with justice agencies around the world, it's been somewhat embarrassing, quite frankly, that nations just as so-called civilized as ours think we're barbaric because we still have capital punishment."  Earlier this year, Ohio passed legislation aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. The law requires the preservation of crime scene evidence and aims to reduce faulty eyewitness identifications. The bill's sponsor, Republican State Senator David Goodman, said an independent review of death row cases and a moratorium on executions would also help prevent wrongful convictions. "It was astounding to see what was presented to me in terms of mistaken identification in criminal cases. I am not anti-death penalty, but if there is anything we can do to make sure we are not executing the wrong man, we should do it."

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Texas Execution Delayed Following State Department Request

A hearing to set an execution date for Texas death row inmate Humberto Leal was postponed after the presiding judge received a letter from a high-ranking U.S. State Department official. Leal, a Mexican citizen who was sentenced to death in 1995, had already been transferred to Bexar County Jail for the hearing to set the execution date. Harold Hongju Koh, a top legal adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote the judge requesting an indefinite postponement while Congress is working on legislation that could affect Leal’s case. Leal is one of 51 Mexican citizens included in a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (Avena and Other Mexican Nationals) that Mexican foreign nationals on U.S. death rows were not given proper notification of their rights to contact their foreign consulate. Koh said that the case is important in U.S. foreign relations, and wrote that, “The Executive Branch is engaging in consultations with Congress and with the Government of Mexico to determine how best to ensure the United States complies with its obligations under Avena.”