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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 09:18 pm

A big push to end capital punishment

Death penalty abolitionists say now is the time

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Randy Steidl spent 12 years on death row before being proven innocent.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

A group calling for the end of capital punishment in Illinois says it is within “striking distance” of passing its bill in the final days of the legislative session.

The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ICADP) is pushing a bill that would eliminate capital punishment in Illinois, and the coalition’s leadership says this is the year for repeal.

Speaking during a lobbying day at the Illinois Capitol Nov. 16, ICADP executive director Jeremy Schroeder told reporters that the coalition was lobbying legislators and Gov. Pat Quinn to pass and sign the repeal. Though Schroeder says a specific bill number has not been officially chosen, the legislative language will likely be inserted into an empty “shell” bill before passage.

“We’re within striking distance,” Schroeder says, adding that it’s difficult to tell how many legislators would actually vote for repeal. “This could be a slam dunk, or we could just squeak this through.”

Democratic Rep. Karen Yarbrough of Chicago will sponsor the bill, and she says the coalition has already spoken to every member of the Illinois General Assembly about how they will vote.

“The idea of this didn’t just happen today,” Yarbrough says. “We feel we’re at the tipping point to get this done.”

The coalition is focusing on economics and innocence in their call for abolition, saying the system is too expensive for the state and too likely to execute innocent prisoners. Litigating capital punishment cases cost Illinois $54 million from January 2003 to November 2009. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977, 20 death row prisoners have been released after being proven innocent – a rate of six percent and the highest rate of the 36 states with the death penalty. Former Gov. George H. Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000, and he commuted 167 death sentences in 2003 shortly before leaving office.

Former Democratic state representative John Dunn of Decatur told reporters that he voted against the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977 and was subsequently reelected eight times, which he says should dispel the myth that legislators who vote against the death penalty will be voted out of office.

“My view then and now is that the death penalty is the premeditated taking of life of another not in war and not in self-defense,” Dunn says. “That’s a pretty fair definition of murder; it’s murder by society.”

A report released on Oct. 28 by the Illinois Capital Punishment Reform Study Commission seems to support the coalition’s reasoning, but declines to call for an end to the death penalty itself. Citing a long list of reforms already instituted in Illinois’ capital punishment system, the report instead identifies further reforms needed, such as funding for state forensic laboratories, electronic recording of interrogations in homicide investigations and an independent panel to oversee in which cases state’s attorneys seek the death penalty.

“After six years of study and analysis, the committee found several issues which still should be addressed in the Illinois capital punishment system,” says CPRSC chair Thomas Sullivan, adding that many of the issues were the same as those identified in 2002 by a similar committee under George Ryan.

But members of the anti-death penalty group made clear they feel the system cannot be fixed.

“We have spent millions of dollars to reform a system that cannot be reformed,” says Randy Steidl, who was released from death row in 2004 after serving 12 years for a pair of murders he did not commit. “After adopting 35 revisions in the death penalty codes, they still say they cannot guarantee that an innocent person would not be executed, so how can you possibly justify spending millions of dollars on a system that is so flawed?”

The Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s website is icadp.org. Read the full reform study at tinyurl.com/deathreform.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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