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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 09:22 am

Opponents try again to

Illinois has freed more innocents than it has executed

In the nine years since Gov. George Ryan imposed a statewide moratorium on capital punishment, death penalty opponents have pushed and prodded legislators to abolish the practice. This year, due to mounting evidence of excessive costs and nominal deterrence, plus a general atmosphere of change, opponents say it could finally happen.

State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, introduced the latest bill, HB262, in January. Last week the measure, which crosses off the death penalty as a punishment option in the Illinois code, was approved by the House Criminal Law Committee and forwarded on for consideration by the full House.

Jeremy Schroeder, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says it will take a lot of work to educate House members on the issue. His group will host a Lobby Day March 12 to discuss the legislation. Community and faith leaders, as well as Illinois death row exonerees, will attend the 11 a.m. rally at the State Capitol.

“There’s a lot more attention being drawn to the death penalty nationally, as well as in Illinois,” Schroeder says. “And we have a lot of facts on our side. Illinois has freed more people for innocence than it actually put to death. Plus, the economic downturn really turned an eye to a system that’s not working.”

According to ICADP, the average cost in a federal capital trial is nearly eight times that of a federal capital trial in which the death penalty is not sought. The state’s budget for fiscal year 2008 included $16.3 million for the Capital Litigation Fund, which provides funding for defense attorneys and other investigative costs in capital cases. Schroeder says this money could be directed elsewhere during the state’s financial crisis.

It’s also not clear, he says, that the threat of capital punishment acts as a deterrent for criminals. For example, Cook County has committed the most people to death row but continues to exhibit the state’s highest murder rate. Additionally, capital punishment is already used sparingly in Illinois; according to ICADP, only three men were sentenced to death in 64 capital cases in 2007.

Death penalty opponents also see hope in state and national trends toward change. Last June the Illinois State Bar Association called for abolition of the death penalty, as did the Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Chicago Tribune. Other states such as Maryland, Montana and New Mexico are close to ending capital punishment, Schroeder says. New Jersey abolished the practice in 2007.

In 2003, Ryan pardoned four men from Illinois’ death row — bringing the total of exonerated inmates up to 17 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. He then granted blanket clemency to the remaining 167, commuting their death sentences to life without parole. Even though the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment studied the system and offered 85 proposals for reform, the state has enacted only 35 of them while sentencing 15 more inmates to death.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich formed a second commission, the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, to continue reviewing these proposals. He later cut its budget.

The moratorium was put in place to rectify past problems with capital punishment, Schroeder says, but there hasn’t been any movement in Springfield to ensure that the committee has the resources it needs.

“It has been quite some time since the General Assembly has looked at the issue,” Schroeder says. “But more and more people in Illinois are coming out in favor of abolition, mainly just saying, ‘We had the chance to fix it, but we haven’t.’

“We need to get rid of it. The danger is people forgetting why we have the moratorium, and the reason was — we had innocent people on death row.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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