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Senate votes to end death penalty

Illinois State  Sen. Kwame Raoul D-Chicago argues death penalty legislati Senate floor during sessiIllinois State Capitol Springfield 2011.

Illinois State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, argues death penalty legislation on the Senate floor during a session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in 2011. | Seth Perlman~The Associated Press

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Updated: May 5, 2011 4:17PM

SPRINGFIELD — In a landmark vote, the Illinois Senate narrowly opted to abolish the state’s death penalty Tuesday after two hours of rancorous debate that pitted the rights of crime victims against a criminal justice system that some said was irreparably broken.

The Senate’s 32-25 vote sends the legislation to Gov. Quinn, who advocated keeping the moratorium on executions first imposed by former Gov. George Ryan but so far has been silent about the abolition legislation.

“We have a historic opportunity today,” said Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief Senate sponsor. “We have an opportunity to part company as a state with countries that are the worst human-rights violators and join the civilized world and end this practice of risking putting to death innocent people.”

Twenty men sentenced to death and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit have been exonerated since Illinois re-imposed the death penalty in 1977. Illinois would be the third state in the last four years to end executions if Quinn signs the measure.

During debate, Raoul invoked the names of Randy Steidl, who watched the debate from the Senate gallery, and Jerry Hobbs as prime examples of why Illinois needs to end the practice of executing condemned killers by lethal injection.

Steidl was convicted of the 1986 stabbing deaths of a young couple in Downstate Paris but won his freedom after a key witness recanted her testimony that she witnessed the murders, and state authorities found police mishandled the initial probe.

“I believe the Illinois state Senate put partisan politics aside and voted for humanity,” Steidl said. “As everyone has described, the death penalty system in Illinois has been broken for decades.”

Hobbs spent five years in prison for the 2005 murder of his eight-year-old daughter, Laura, and her nine-year-old friend Krystal Tobias in Zion, but he was cleared after DNA evidence from the crime scene implicated someone else. Hobbs has since sued several suburban law enforcement agencies, alleging he was tortured into making a confession.

“We have to take ourselves back in history to what we were reading about Jerry Hobbs prior to us finding out that he didn’t do it,” Raoul said. “What were you thinking? I submit to you, you were probably thinking that man needs to be put to death. But he didn’t do it.”

Opponents said taking away the death penalty would take away an important tool from prosecutors and represented a slap at victims’ families.

“I spoke to the victims’ families immediately after their children or loved ones were murdered. I saw the look in their eye. I’m the one who had to tell them what happened to their child,” said state Sen. John Millner (R-Carol Stream), the former Elmhurst police chief who helped investigate the ritualistic murders that led to the 1999 execution of serial killer Andrew Kokoraleis.

Like Kokoraleis, the last man put to death in Illinois, prosecutors need the ultimate punishment to pursue criminals that are the “worst of the worst,” like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, serial killer John Wayne Gacy or, if he is convicted, accused Arizona mass murderer Jared Loughner, opponents said.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez issued a statement decrying the vote.

“As a career prosecutor, I believe that the death penalty should be available as a deterrent to violent crime in the most heinous of cases, particularly at a time when we have witnessed outrageous crimes such as the senseless murder of five Chicago Police officers this past year,” she said.

“It’s a question of righting the greatest wrong. It is not a question, I repeat, of vengeance. It’s a question of the people being outraged at such terrible crimes, such bloodletting, the massacre on Sept. the 11th, the massacre recently in Arizona,” said Sen. William Haine (D-Alton), a former Downstate state’s attorney, who voted against the bill.

But state Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) argued worry over being executed did not keep Loughner from allegedly shooting U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killing six others in a weekend rampage.

“Arizona’s got the death penalty. It didn’t stop that crank. It didn’t stop that idiot,” Hendon said. “It’s not the deterrent you think.”

An aide to Quinn would not divulge the governor’s stance on the legislation.

“Gov. Quinn plans to review the bill when he receives it from the legislature,” spokeswoman Annie Thompson said.

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