Illinois Reacts To Death Penalty Abolition

Yesterday Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in his state. Now the families of victims are angry — and Republicans vow to reinstate executions.

According to the AP, Quinn decided to sign the bill after two months of deliberation — and a twenty-year process in Illinois that began with then-Gov. George Ryan's 2000 moratorium on executions. His rationale: "If the system can't be guaranteed 100 percent error-free, then we shouldn't have the system. It cannot stand." He also pointed out that the death penalty could be applied differently by different prosecutors, and might be subject to racial or class bias. Some applaud his decision — says Gary Gauger, who was sentenced to death but then exonerated, "The death penalty is a throwback to a time when society did not have the ability to hold homicidal maniacs ... for the rest of their lives." But others are less supportive.

Says Pam Bosley, whose son was murdered, "I am a Christian. I never believed in killing nobody else. But the pain you suffer every single day, I say take them out." The Chicago Tribune spoke to more families of victims: Tom Nicarico, whose daughter was raped and murdered, says of her killer's death sentence, "This man earned it, and he's not the only one on death row who earned it." And 14-year-old Quincy Newburn says of his mother's killer, who will now also escape the death penalty, "I've already forgiven him for what he did, but I want to see justice in action."

Illinois Republicans vow that he will — they claim that new changes to the death penalty process will prevent innocent people from being executed. And one Republican State Rep. Jim Durkin says Quinn is sure to lose reelection over the issue, because (in the AP's paraphrase) "some terrible murder that cries out for the death penalty is bound to occur and grab voters' attention." But even the idea that certain crimes "call out" for the death penalty is problematic — as Quinn points out, this call is heard differently by different people. And while it's important to honor the pain victims' families face, and help them seek justice, it's debatable whether a government that executes people can ever be just. In an unequal society, this punishment will always be applied unequally. But more than that, our country's insistence on seeing people killed for their crimes is based less on ethics and public policy than on emotions — on collective rage and hurt and desire for revenge. Illinois has joined the ranks of an overwhelming number of industrialized countries in putting a check on these emotions — let's hope more states follow suit.

Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty, Clears Death Row [AP]
Quinn's Death Penalty Ban Outrages Victims' Families [Chicago Tribune]