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Illinois death penalty repealed; death row sentences commuted to life

Gov. Quinn signs historic legislatiWednesday abolishing death penalty Illinois. He also commuted life sentences 15 convicted killers death row. |

Gov. Quinn signs historic legislation Wednesday abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. He also commuted to life the sentences of 15 convicted killers on death row. | Courtesy Gov. Quin's office

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Updated: March 9, 2011 3:35PM

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Quinn today signed landmark legislation to repeal the state’s “seriously broken” death penalty and then commuted the death sentences of the 15 men currently on death row.

“We cannot have a death penalty in our state that kills innocent people,” Quinn said. “If the system cannot be guaranteed 100 percent error free, then we cannot have the system. It cannot stand. It just is not right.”

The governor’s highly anticipated move, which he said he arrived at over the weekend, adds Illinois to 15 other states that have abolished the death penalty since the late 1970s.

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

Speaking to family members of those slain by the men just taken off death row, Quinn said: “There are no words in the English language or any language to relieve your pain, and I understand that.

“I listened with all my heart to every one of those families,” he said. “The family of Illinois, all 13 million people who live in Illinois, we want to be with you. You are not alone in your grief.

“. . .I would say to them I understand their pain. I know there is no way to erase the pain. I do believe the death penalty should be abolished in our state because of mistakes that were made... and also because there are other means of punishment.”

Quinn’s intentions for those on death row had been kept under tight wraps. That group of 15 men 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 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 repeal measure state Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) and state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) 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, study . .. to come to my decision.

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

The governor’s action 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 mass murderer 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.

But 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.

As word of his intention trickled out, supporters of the death penalty condemned the governor for going back on his campaign promise to voters.

“Gov. Quinn always says the will of the people should be the law of the land. I don’t think that’s the case if he signs the bill,” said Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), who voted against the repeal. “He promised the people of the state one thing, then he delivers something else.”

The Sun-Times reported Saturday that President Obama — who as a state senator pushed through a series of death-penalty reforms — congratulated Quinn at the White House late last month on legislative passage of the death penalty repeal bill.

Yarbrough said Quinn’s move puts Illinois “on the right side of history.”

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