history of the death penalty in Illinois begins in 1973 when former Governor Dan Walker signed a new which ostensibly corrected the problems that caused the former law to be declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1972. The law signed by Walker was revised in 1977 and was in effect until the Illinois legislature ultimately abolished the death penalty entirely in March of 2011 (Mills, 2011).
When the Illinois legislature determined in 1973 that they wanted to draft new death penalty legislation, it was their intent to comply with the provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia (Furman v. Georgia, 1972). The Supreme Court had ruled that the capital punishment laws in Georgia and Texas, as they were being applied, were unconstitutional as being cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, in violation of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman effectively invalidated the death penalty nationwide and subsequent cases established acceptable guidelines for new capital punishment legislation that the requirement that capital sentencing must narrow the class of people eligible for the death penalty and also set clear guidelines for judges and juries in determining an appropriate sentence.
The death penalty law that was on the books in Illinois when the legislature ultimately abolished it was enacted in 1977. Said law provided for seven specific circumstances under which the legislation deemed deserving of the death penalty including the killing of a police officer, a contract killing, or a killing occurring in the course of committing another felony. Later the legislature, in response to widespread demands, added gang related killings to the list of crimes meriting death penalty consideration.
The election of Governor George Ryan in 1998 brought some remarkable changes. Ryan, who had been an ardent supporter of the death penalty, having voted for its enactment as a member of the Illinois legislature, directed his administration to begin investigating problems that had been brought to light by the media and several court cases. In the decade prior to Ryan's taking office a Chicago police department investigation revealed that there had been more than 50 instances of torture by the department, DNA science began to emerge as an effective investigative tool, and the Chicago Tribune published a report documenting hundreds of examples of prosecutorial misconduct in Cook County. This combination of factors contributed to Governor Ryan and his administration adopting a new attitude toward the death penalty. The result of this new attitude was a decision by Governor Ryan to impose a moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty and the formation of a commission to review the death penalty system in the state (Office, 2000). In imposition the moratorium Ryan said he would not sign off on any further executions until the commission returned with recommendations.
Although the media exposures had their effect on Ryan's position, it was the efforts spearheaded by State Representative Susana Mendoza and her attempt to incorporate a gang related killing measure into the death penalty statute that provided the primary impetus for Ryan's actions. Ryan strongly felt that the gang killings provision was a form of overkill by the legislature. Ryan reasoned that most of the situations under which gang killings occurred were already covered by the other death penalty factors set forth in the statute and that targeting gang killings for special treatment might not stand up under scrutiny under the standards set forth in Furman. In this regard, Ryan stated: "Over the last year, I have heard from prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys who have suggested we already have far too many eligibility factors under our existing capital punishment statute."
The most compelling reason that Governor Ryan decided to adopt the position that he did relative to the death penalty was the discovery that 13 death row inmates in the State of Illinois were exonerated. This discovery, which occurred in 2000, sent shockwaves through the state and caused all three branches of the government to begin considering a complete reform of the death penalty system. Governor Ryan's appointment of a commission and signing off on the imposition of the death penalty was the initial step taken but the legislature and courts followed with their own actions shortly thereafter. The legislature initiated legislation that established a special fund that provided additional legal assistance to poor defendants charged with capital offenses and the Supreme Court set in place new rules governing the conduct of Bar members engaged in the handling of capital cases. Prior to this action by the Supreme Court, nearly any attorney was eligible to handle capital cases. Subsequently, attorneys were required to meet minimal standards.
Although there were a number of compelling reasons for the actions taken by the three branches of the Illinois Government to take affirmative steps toward addressing the death penalty issue, there was considerable political pressure on the other side of the issue that forced the Government to remain staunch in their attitude toward crime in general. The Illinois Government's review of the death penalty issue came at a time when there was considerable pressure by voters for a general tough on crime stance. Politicians at the time could not harbor any hope of being elected by taking a position soft on crime and, therefore, it was politically expedient for many politicians to assume a position in support of the death penalty, or at least not in opposition to its elimination, if they hoped to be elected. The practical result was that the death penalty and legislation favoring its expansion was quite popular in the early 2000 and, despite considerable negative press, public opinion still favored a tough on crime position.
In the waning weeks of Governor Ryan's administration the death penalty issue intensified as Ryan dig his heals in his opposition to the death penalty (Ryan, 2003). In doing so, he pardoned four inmates awaiting execution and emptied the remainder of the State's death row of the inmates. Ryan argued that the Illinois death penalty system was "arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral."
Ryan's actions came on the heels of the Illinois legislature's failure to enact any of the 85 reforms that Ryan's death penalty commission had recommended. Ryan had previously imposed a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty prior to the Commission's beginning its deliberations and continued them pending their recommendations. When the legislature decided to ignore the reforms recommended by Ryan's Commission, Ryan decided to take action on his own to insure that the State of Illinois did not execute any innocent individuals. Ironically, Ryan, who took such a strong position against the death penalty, was the last governor to sign a death warrant for a capital offense in Illinois. Following Ryan's leaving office both subsequent Governors maintained Ryan's moratorium until the legislature finally abolished the death penalty in 2011.
Whatever other faults Ryan may have had, his position on the death penalty was admirable. Ryan recognized that the history of the death penalty in the State of Illinois was not a good one and that the actions of the courts, the prosecutors, and police through the years in cases involving the death penalty had raised concern in many areas relative to how the death penalty was administered in Illinois. The number of cases involving innocent defendants who were found guilty and sentenced to death in Illinois were numerous and Ryan refused to surrender to pressure to lift his moratorium. Ryan recognized that there were corrupt judges, dishonest prosecutors, and overzealous police that may distort the results in criminal cases involving the ultimate sanction: death. Ryan's position was that under such circumstances it was the responsibility of the legislature to ensure that strict safeguards were in place that minimized the possibility that errors occurred in criminal cases where the death penalty was a possible option.
The Illinois legislature's abolishing the death penalty after a long struggle, both legally and politically, marks a major step forward in ensuring that justice is guaranteed in the State of Illinois. The number of wrongfully convicted defendants, uncovered through the efforts of a group of industrious and dedicated Northwestern law students, and the incidences of prosecutorial misconduct were inordinately high and merited attention. Many in Illinois felt that the death penalty system in Illinois did not protect the constitutional rights of the accused and that the system had to be changed to avoid any further injustices occurring. Unfortunately, the political pressures to maintain the death penalty overrode the realities that the system was not working. But for the individual efforts of former Governor Ryan, several hundred additional convicted defendants would have been put to death in Illinois. Based on the State's track record in prior cases, there is a strong likelihood that a fair number of these defendants would be innocent.
Pat Quinn, who was the Illinois Governor at the time that the legislature abolished the death penalty, expressed the sentiments of many…