Illinois lawmakers urged to issue final decision on future of death row

By Nguyen Huy Vu

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – When former Gov. George Ryan took the extraordinary step of emptying Illinois’ death row over fears that an innocent person could be executed, he urged lawmakers to reform the death penalty.

Five years later, the future of capital punishment in Illinois is no closer to being decided.

The current governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, refuses to carry out executions of the 14 people now on death row despite approving several reforms. Lawmakers have ignored legislative attempts to decide the issue. And prosecutors are slower to seek the death penalty.

As the issue languishes, those involved in the debate agree on at least one thing: It’s time for lawmakers to lift the moratorium or abolish the death penalty altogether.

“I don’t think that the moratorium was meant to be a permanent position,” said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a member of the state’s Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee and a victim’s rights advocate who favors abolishing the death penalty.

“Vengeance does not fill the gaping hole left behind,” said Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered in their Winnetka home in 1990. “It does not provide justice, to kill the offender and suggest that it is going somehow balance out or make OK what happened to her and her husband and her baby.”

But she knows some of those she represents feel differently, and says it’s time for Illinois to decide one way or the other.

In 2000, Ryan, a Republican, made Illinois the first state with the death penalty to suspend executions, after 13 condemned prisoners were freed for wrongful conviction. Just before leaving office in 2003, Ryan cleared death row entirely, sparing 167 people from execution. Most had their sentences commuted to life in prison, though a handful got outright pardons.

The issue has stalled since then, even as other states have resolved the issue.

In 2004, Blagojevich signed into law capital punishment reforms – including mandatory videotaped confessions in murder cases, restrictions on testimony from jailhouse informants and broader use of DNA analysis – and created a committee to review the reforms annually for five years.

But the panel has rarely had enough members – appointed by Blagojevich – to do its work, and the governor vetoed its funding this year.

Nevertheless, DuPage County State’s Attorney Joseph Birkett said Blagojevich should lift the moratorium, saying the reforms have made it virtually impossible for the innocent to end up on death row. The state also budgeted more than $12 million this year for a fund that will help pay for such things as investigators, DNA analysis and health evaluations in capital cases.

“This has been a thoughtful, careful and informed set of reforms that all parties have had a chance to weigh in on and I don’t think the governor is even aware of these and the effect that they’re having across the state,” Birkett said.

Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, argues the capital punishment system has improved but is still flawed. She said there are too many circumstances under which someone could qualify for the death penalty, and the decision on who gets the sentence is too arbitrary.

For instance, a jury convicted Juan Luna last year in the 1993 execution-style murders of seven people at the Brown’s Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine but rejected the death penalty. Meanwhile, Laurence Lovejoy of Naperville was sentenced to death after he was convicted of killing his stepdaughter.

“The moratorium is a necessity because we had a horribly broken system and it’s not fixed,” Bohman said.

Other states have made more progress.

In New Jersey, lawmakers in 2006 imposed a moratorium on executions and two years later abolished the death penalty after concluding it was too much of a financial and emotional burden. New York also has effectively abolished the death penalty through court decisions.

Virginia this year lifted its death penalty moratorium after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection in April.

But Illinois isn’t the only state in limbo.

California’s death penalty has been on hold for two years because of legal challenges in federal and state courts. Delaware, Maryland and Tennessee also have halted executions while the issue of whether lethal injection is constitutional is resolved within each state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C.

In Illinois, lawmakers aren’t rushing to resolve the issue.

Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty last year, but the Senate has never voted on the idea. Similarly, Rep. Dennis Reboletti, R-Elmhurst, introduced a resolution to end the moratorium, only to see it languish in committee.

So that leaves the decision to Blagojevich.

The governor plans to keep the moratorium in place until he “is confident there is no chance an innocent person will be put to death,” said spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff.

“After such a long and tragic history of injustice, we will not rush to judgment or put some sort of artificial timeline in place,” she added.

But Ottenhoff would not say what Blagojevich is doing to review the reforms, or what criteria he’ll use to decide whether to end the moratorium. She did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with anyone in the administration who is studying the death penalty.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are slower to seek the death penalty. Fifteen people have been sentenced to death in Illinois since 2003 – one apparently committed suicide recently – compared to 33 who were condemned in the five years before the commutations.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Philip Nicolosi recalled explaining to a grieving family why his office was hesitant to seek the death penalty in their case.

“One of the things I told them was this case pretty much has a guarantee that it’s going to go on without a final resolution if we do seek the death penalty,” he said.