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Editorial: Death penalty repeal a victory for justice

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Illinois finally has faced up to the ugly truth of the death penalty, and that’s something we can be proud of.

Gov. Quinn’s signing of legislation to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday completed a long journey in Illinois from a time when people could be sentenced to death on scanty evidence with little public outcry.

Here’s where we stood just two decades ago, when the case of accused murderer Rolando Cruz came before the Illinois Supreme Court. Lawyers, investigators and journalists already had unearthed plenty of evidence pointing to Cruz’s innocence, but the court ruled he should be executed anyway.

The 1992 opinion upholding his conviction was laced with careless assumptions. It said the evidence was “overwhelming” (it wasn’t) and that physical evidence strongly buttressed the case against Cruz (there wasn’t any).

The document was shocking because it underscored how little anyone understood the risk that an innocent person could actually be put to death.

Fortunately, an election changed the composition of the high court, and a new one-vote majority sent the case back to DuPage County, where it crumpled so completely that a judge stopped it in mid-trial and freed Cruz.

What we’ve learned since then is that the Cruz case was no anomaly. We’ve learned that the system makes too many mistakes to entrust it with the ultimate power of capital punishment.

We’ve learned that legal safeguards can be pushed aside when emotions are high after a heinous crime. We’ve learned that political ambition sometimes blinds those in power to the weaknesses of a case. We’ve learned that evidence can disappear or be misrepresented, that witnesses seeking special deals may lie, that juries may be swayed by emotion instead of facts.

Quinn, who also commuted the sentences of 15 men now on Death Row to life in prison on Wednesday, was right to acknowledge the pain his decision will bring to the loved ones of victims in those cases. Nothing can ever salve the heartache of their losses. And to those who found solace in the knowledge that culprits had been sentenced to death, a life sentence in prison won’t be an adequate substitute.

But Illinois has nonetheless taken a step that was as necessary as it was emotionally difficult.

We can be proud that in 2000, Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all those on Death Row to life in prison and imposed a moratorium on executions. We can be proud that Illinois re-investigated numerous cases, leading to freedom for 20 men on Death Row awaiting their execution dates. We can be proud that we join 15 other states and 139 nations in doing away with the death penalty and have been a national leader in debating the issue.

Quinn said no decision he has made as governor was as difficult as signing this bill, yet he did the right thing. We only wonder why he chose to sign the bill in a private ceremony, closed to the entire Illinois media save for one newspaper, as if he doubted his own wisdom.

The struggle for justice is one that will never end. But with his signature, Quinn brought us one step closer to that ideal.

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