After spending years at the center of heated national debate over capital punishment, Illinois’ death row officially died Friday when a state law abolishing the death penalty quietly took effect.
The state garnered international attention when then-Republican Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium in 2000 after several inmates’ death sentences were overturned and he cleared death row three years later. One man who came within 48 hours of being executed was among those later declared innocent.
The fate of executions in the state was sealed in March when Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation ending the death penalty, following years of stories of men sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit and families of murder victims angrily demanding their loved ones’ killers pay with their own lives.
Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated, but none since 1999.
Quinn subsequently commuted the sentences of the 15 men on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fourteen are now in maximum security prisons, while one is in a medium-high security prison with a mental health facility.
Ironically, the state’s death row at the prison in Pontiac, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, has been turned into a place where inmates go when they’re deemed worthy of leaving the state’s super-maximum prison in southern Illinois, the Tamms Correctional Center, and enter a less-restrictive program.
“It is a step down from Tamms,” said Stacey Solano, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections. “When they transition out, it is a restrictive environment but not as restrictive as Tamms.”
As for the death chamber itself, no decision has been made about what – if anything – will be done with it, Solano said.
The legislation abolishing the death penalty was signed by Quinn amid much fanfare, but Friday’s finality was barely noted around the state. Solano said the department received just two calls for information from the media on Friday.
That lack of interest stands in contrast to the last dozen years or so when Illinois was often at the forefront of debate over the death penalty.
Ryan, who imposed the execution moratorium after the death sentences of 13 men were overturned, called the state’s capital punishment system “haunted by the demon of error.” He cleared death row shortly before leaving office in 2003, by commuting the sentences of 167 condemned inmates to life in prison.
Even as lawmakers debated the death penalty and the moratorium, prosecutors continued to seek the death penalty. By the time Quinn signed the bill in March, there were 15 men on death row.
Among them was Brian Dugan, who was convicted in 2009 in the 1983 slaying of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico – years after two men were sentenced to death for the same slaying before they were ultimately exonerated and released from prison.
His attorney, Steven Greenberg, said Friday that shutting down death row was proper given that people were convicted and sentenced to death for that crime and others they did not commit.
“Anytime you’ve got a system where there is a danger of providing retribution on the wrong person, that’s no different than vigilante justice, which is what we had,” he said.
Greenberg said some juries, with their decisions not to recommend the death penalty in other cases in recent years, were already sending a message that they remained concerned about the possibility of executing an innocent person.
Former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine, a proponent of the death penalty and a vocal critic of Ryan’s decision to clear death row, pointed out that among those who benefit from the ban is a man who raped a mother and daughter in front of one another before stabbing them to death.
“I believe there are some people who do such terrible things that they forfeit their right to be among us,” he said.
Devine said he doesn’t believe the death penalty is gone forever in Illinois, and that the debate will begin anew when there is a particularly horrific crime.
“I suspect when the next John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh … happens there will be some discussion of bringing it back,” he said. “Nothing is carved in stone.”