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End of death penalty to affect Will County cases


JOLIET — Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow has prosecuted four death-penalty cases in his career and he is in favor of the punishment as an option for the most heinous crimes.

“As a prosecutor, I felt it was a valuable tool,” he said.

But he said he also is well aware of the flaws in the state’s capital punishment system, which was abolished Wednesday when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill eliminating it as a sentencing option.

“The political wind is blowing outside my control,” Glasgow said of the end to capital punishment here.

Will County currently had two death penalty cases headed to trial: Christopher Vaughn is charged with killing his wife and three children in Channahon Township, and Richard Conner is accused of murdering a cellmate at Stateville Correctional Center.

Before acting to decertify both cases for the death penalty, Glasgow said he called the victims’ families Monday.

“Amazingly, they both took it very well,” he said of the news.

Sometimes, victims’ families would rather see their loved ones’ murderers sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he added. That was the case for the Melissa and Kevin Fox whose daughter, Riley, was murdered by Scott Eby in Wilmington. Eby pleaded guilty to the crime last year and Glasgow said the Foxes want Eby to “stare at the cold, dark walls of a prison for the rest of his life.”

Abolishing the death penalty will save taxpayers money and lead to quicker resolutions to cases that otherwise would drag on for years, Glasgow said.

“The bottom line is it will expedite the prosecution,” he said. “… Once the death penalty is off the table, I can get a trial date much more quickly than I could previously.”

But there are cons to Quinn’s move, he added. The death penalty was especially valuable as a tool for cases similar to the Conner case, where an inmate already serving a life sentence is accused of committing another murder in prison.

“It does serve a purpose in those kinds of cases, and now it’s gone,” Glasgow said. “If a murderer murders in prison, the only logical punishment would be the death penalty if it’s available.”

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin was outraged by Quinn’s action.

“Today is a victory for murderers across Illinois,” he said in a press release. “Violent offenders can now murder police officers, kill victims during forcible felonies, kill multiple victims and kill witnesses without fear of receiving the death penalty.”

Will County Public Defender Frank Astrella welcomed the death penalty ban.

“We agree that a system that is fraught with human error and cannot guarantee fairness and equality should be abolished,” he said.

State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet, voted for the bill when it was in the state Senate and said Quinn was right to sign it.

“There was just no way around the fact that the system was broken and couldn’t be fixed,” he said. “The chance of putting an innocent person to death is simply unacceptable. Life without parole is the appropriate sentence for people who commit heinous crimes.”

Both Glasgow and Astrella agreed that money in the state’s capital litigation fund, which is used by defense attorneys in death penalty cases, should be returned to the general fund as soon as possible. That is why Glasgow is decertifying his two death penalty cases before the new law takes effect.

Quinn said the fund’s assets will be used for victims’ families and law enforcement training.

— Cindy Wojdyla Cain

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

JOLIET — Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Wednesday that abolishes the death penalty in Illinois.

Currently, no one prosecuted in Will County is on death row.

However, two pending cases had been certified for the death penalty, said Charles Pelkie, a spokesman for Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow.

Prior to Quinn’s action, Christopher Vaughn and Richard Conner both faced the death penalty in their upcoming trials.

Vaughn is accused of killing his wife and three children in 2007 in Channahon Township. The Oswego family was traveling to a Springfield water park when Vaughn pulled their SUV over onto an Interstate 55 frontage road. Vaughn said his wife had shot him in the leg, so he got out of the car and walked away from it. Then she killed the children and committed suicide, he said. But prosecutors contend he shot his family and wounded himself.

Conner, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, has been charged with killing Jameson Leezer in 2009 while the two shared a cell at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.

Neither trial has begun. Glasgow said Wednesday that he will move to decertify the cases, meaning they won’t seek the death penalty, now that Quinn has ended capital punishment in the state.

The Illinois Legislature approved the death penalty ban in January. Quinn had until March 18 to sign the bill into law. Illinois will become the 16th state without capital punishment when the bill takes effect July 1.

2000 moratorium

In 2000, former Gov. George Ryan enacted a moratorium on executions that has been in place since.

Prior to the moratorium, 13 Illinois death-row inmates were exonerated and five were found innocent. After the moratorium, six more death-row inmates were exonerated and found innocent.

Shortly before he left office in 2003, Ryan cleared death row, commuting most of the inmates’ sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Quinn said at the time that the state’s death penalty process was arbitrary, capricious and immoral.

Will County inmates whose sentences were commuted in 2003 were:

Milton Johnson, who killed one man in an ambush on Interstate 55 and four women in a Joliet ceramics shop in the early 1980s.

John Szabo, who was convicted of murdering two brothers during a drug deal in 1979 in Bolingbrook.

Elton Williams, who shot and killed Crest Hill police Sgt. Timothy Simenson in 1994.

Edward Moore Jr., who murdered Judith Zeman in 1993 in Morris. She was beaten, raped, dragged outside, doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Henry Brisbon, who received a death sentence in 1982 for the stabbing of a fellow inmate at Stateville, where he was serving a life sentence for the 1973 murders of Dorothy Cerny and James Schmidt on Interstate 57.

Arthur Dale Hickey, who was convicted of murdering Jeffrey Stephens of Ritchie and raping and shooting Stephens’ wife, Heather, in 1991.

Timothy Buss, convicted of murdering Christopher Meyer, a Kankakee County 10-year-old, in 1995. The boy’s body was found buried in a shallow grave after his disappearance. He had been stabbed 48 times.

The most highly publicized execution to occur in Will County in modern times happened in 1994 when serial killer John Wayne Gacy was put to death by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center.

The last public executions in Illinois took place in 1927 in Will County, when three men were hanged in front of the Will County Jail for murdering a prison warden.

The last execution in Illinois took place in 1999 when Andrew Kokoraleis was put to death by lethal injection at Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

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