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Death penalty a bargaining chip prosecutors aim to keep

Across the state, prosecutors fear that Gov. Quinn could make their jobs harder if he signs a measure that would outlaw the death penalty, sparing the defendants who prosecutors want to put there.

As Quinn weighs the matter, saying he wants to “follow my conscience” and consult widely, the states’ attorneys say the move would rob them of an important bargaining chip — the threat of death to get guilty pleas from suspects who opt for life in prison.

Take that off the table, they say, and there’ll be more trials because defendants facing only the prospect of life behind bars would be less inclined to deal.

“When we go to battle in the most serious, heinous cases, we have to have every weapon available to us,” said Thomas Gibbons, the state’s attorney in southwestern Illinois’ Madison County. “Let’s say you’re playing cards and you lose your ace — you’re one step behind.”

Prosecutors also say repealing the death penalty would take away their access to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, the pool of state money that pays for death penalty trials, likely forcing cash-strapped counties to absorb the entire cost of murder trials. The money would be used instead for services for families of homicide victims and law enforcement training,

There’s also the value of an execution to victims’ families wanting a measure of justice and closure, prosecutors argue.

“I firmly believe there are certain cases that are so shocking, outrageous and have such an impact on the community that there is no other sentence,” said Bob Berlin, the new DuPage County state’s attorney.

Quinn, who says he supports capital punishment if properly applied, received the bill last month. If he signs the measure, it would take effect July 1. Or Quinn could lift the state’s moratorium and allow executions to again begin in Illinois.

Illinois executions have been on hold since former Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on them in 2000.


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