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Quinn signs bill repealing Illinois death penalty

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

SPRINGFIELD — Acting on perhaps the most significant issue he will ever face, Gov. Quinn Wednesday signed landmark legislation to repeal the state’s “seriously broken” death penalty and then commuted the death sentences of the 15 men on Death Row.

“We cannot have a death penalty system in our state that kills innocent people,” Quinn said. “Unfortunately that system was in grave danger of doing exactly that in 20 different instances in Illinois. And so what’s really in question is the system itself. If the system can’t be guaranteed 100 percent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system. It cannot stand. It just is not right in our democracy and system of justice.”

The governor’s highly anticipated decision, which he said he arrived at over the weekend, undoes a capital punishment system in place since 1977 and adds Illinois to 15 other states that have abolished the death penalty.

“I felt once the decision was made to sign the law abolishing the death penalty, it should be abolished for all,” Quinn said of commuting the existing death sentences to life in prison without parole.

He later added: “I do believe the evil-doers should be punished severely in prison without parole . . . but without the death penalty.”

The governor’s action — which he called “the most difficult decision I’ve made as governor’’ — closes the book on a sorry chapter in state history when 20 inmates sentenced to death were exonerated of their alleged crimes.

Twelve people, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, have been executed by the state since the death penalty was re-imposed in 1977. The last execution was in 1999, when serial killer and satanic cultist Andrew Kokoraleis was put to death by lethal injection.

Appearing fatigued, the governor signed the death penalty repeal in his Statehouse office during a private ceremony attended by several lawmakers, including state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) and Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood), the bill’s chief legislative sponsors.

“I’m happy to say today we’ve joined the rest of the civilized world,” Raoul said later, reflecting the jubilance of those who fought a pitched battle to finally dismantle state government’s execution statute.

“I just want to say that I believe Gov. Quinn is a compassionate man, and he made a decision today, a moral righteous decision, when he realized there are flaws in this system that almost took my life and 19 other men in Illinois,” said Randy Steidl, who spent 12 years on Death Row before being exonerated in the 1986 murders of an Edgar County couple.

But Quinn’s decision unleashed a wave of criticism from victims’ family members, prosecutors and pro-death penalty legislators, who predicted the governor would pay a steep political price for Wednesday’s action, particularly when the next gruesome killing spree cannot be met with the ultimate punishment.

“Today is a very sad day for justice in Illinois and a tremendously disappointing day for murder victims and their families,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who said the fate of Illinois’ death penalty law should have been left for voters to decide.

“People like Anthony Mertz . . . and Paul Runge are the big winners today,” state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst). Mertz was sentenced to death for raping and killing an Eastern Illinois University student in 2001, and Runge raped and murdered a Chicago woman and her 10-year-old daughter in 1997 and killed five other women. “The people of Illinois aren’t the winners.”

After emerging from his invitation-only bill-signing event, Quinn said although he did meet with families of murder victims, he did not speak directly with relatives of victims whose killers are on Death Row before his decision. But, looking toward a crush of news cameras, he expressed empathy toward the families.

“There are no words in the English language or any language to relieve your pain. I understand that,” he said.

“I want to tell them it’s impossible, I’m sure, to ever be healed. But we want to tell all of those family members that the family of Illinois, all 13 million people who live in our state, we want to be with you. You are not alone in your grief.’’

Quinn’s intentions for those on Death Row had been kept under tight wraps. That group of 15 men also includes serial killer Brian Dugan, who was convicted in the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico.

None of the legal cases for those on Death Row were expected by legal experts to reach completion until after 2017, meaning a decision on anyone’s execution wouldn’t have occurred until either Quinn would be in a new term or a new governor would be in place.

The law takes effect on July 1, leaving prosecutors with the option of pursuing death sentences in murder cases until that point. But Quinn aides said the governor intends to commute any death sentence imposed during that period to life in prison without parole, the same sentence Quinn gave to those now on Death Row.

The Illinois Department of Corrections expects to make a decision next week on which of five maximum-security prisons to relocate the inmates, who are now housed at the Pontiac Correctional Center, and whether to house them in cells with other inmates. Now, they are in single cells, prisons spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said.

The repeal measure Yarbrough and Raoul got through the Legislature in January was silent about the fate of those sentenced to death since former Gov. George Ryan set aside the death sentences of the 164 inmates on Death Row in 2003.

“I have listened to many, many people on both sides of this issue,” Quinn said. “Over the last two months I deliberately set up a time of reflection and review.’’

“The bill is law, and that is something that we the people of Illinois will tell the whole world,” the governor said.

During his campaign for governor, Quinn indicated his support for the death penalty but pledged to keep in place the moratorium that Ryan first imposed and that remained through two later administrations.

Supporters of the death penalty condemned the governor for going back on his campaign promise to voters.

“My heart goes out today to the families of the victims of these heinous crimes who believed they had received justice from our legal system,” said Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), Quinn’s vanquished gubernatorial opponent.

“It is unfortunate that Gov. Quinn, by signing this legislation, once again has misled the citizens of Illinois and acted contrary to the principles and promises he stood for during the campaign,” Brady said.

But the governor stood his ground when asked about flipping on the death penalty.

“I have no regrets. I think this was the right thing to do for our state given the circumstances of the state of Illinois on this issue. I feel I did what I should do,” Quinn said.

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