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Wednesday, July 9, 2008 07:38 pm

Dead reckoning

The state’s lawyers say it’s time to end capital punishment

Jack Carey, a general trial practitioner from Belleville and a 30-year member of the Illinois State Bar Association, had barely been president of the organization for 24 hours when its 201-member assembly voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty. The landmark June 28 decision wasn’t unanimous — more like a 2-to-1 vote, Carey says — but it came on the heels of other ISBA measures that supported capital-punishment reforms. The 35,000-member association previously backed the improvements recommended by the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment and encouraged the initiation of a capital litigation fund so defense and prosecution in capital cases receive equal funding.
The ISBA’s latest move came at the right time, Carey says, as the death penalty in Illinois continues to reveal its flaws and as legislation to end the practice or lift the state’s moratorium seems to go nowhere. “Our position is that the death penalty is not fixable and should be discontinued,” Carey announced to members after the decision. “To do otherwise would invite the grossest miscarriage of justice imaginable, the death of an innocent person.”
Carey, who individually supports the abolition of the death penalty, hopes that the association’s decision will get the ball rolling in Springfield and encourages legislators to support bills aimed at ending capital punishment in Illinois. If the General Assembly doesn’t take the hint, Casey says, the ISBA can offer legislation through lawmakers on its own. Leigh Bienen, a law professor at Northwestern University, is one of the members of the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee — the appointed group charged with the annual review of reforms enacted under Gov. George Ryan. Bienen says the study committee probably won’t publicly comment on the ISBA’s decision because it’s not the members’ jobs to be “for or against capital punishment.”
She agrees that it’s an issue for state legislators but is unsure of how much influence the decision will have on their view of the death penalty. “Of course it means something, but it depends on how much weight you think the bar has,” Bienen says. “For example, the American Bar Association has from time to time taken a position on capital punishment. Do people pay attention to it? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.”
Another recent decision that sparked debate in Illinois and across the country was the United States Supreme Court’s April vote to allow the continued use of lethal injection. Although the high court’s decision had no immediate impact on the status of the state’s practice, those close to the issue agreed that it could reinvigorate conversation about capital punishment [see Amanda Robert, “Killing time?” May 8].

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.
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