Monday, January 31, 2011

Update on the Repeal of the Death Penalty in Illinois

About three weeks ago, I mentioned that the Illinois General Assembly did something I never thought I’d live to see: Passed a bill repealing the death penalty in Illinois. The bill then went to Gov. Pat Quinn, a moderate Democrat and a Catholic who has indicated in the past that he supports the existing moratorium on the death penalty instituted by former Republican Gov. George Ryan. Gov. Quinn is not, however, opposed to the death penalty in principle.

At the time the General Assembly passed the repeal legislation, I said I had some confidence that Gov. Quinn would sign the bill into law. But so far he hasn’t done that. Under Illinois law, Gov. Quinn has 60 days from the date a bill is presented to him to sign it or veto it, in the latter case “by returning it with his objections to the house in which it originated”; if he takes no action within 60 days of presentation, it becomes law. Ill. Const., Art. IV § 9(b).

As the clock ticks, “Mr. Quinn and aides are asking various individuals for their take on the bill and abolition.” According to the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Governor also “has said that he wants to hear from the people” of Illinois, and the Coalition is urging everyone who favors abolition to let their voices be heard. You can also sign the American Civil Liberties Union’s online petition to Gov. Quinn here.

Meanwhile, Gov. Quinn’s running mate in the last election, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon (daughter of the late Illinois Sen. Paul Simon), sent the Governor a letter last week urging him to sign the repeal bill. Ms. Simon’s letter reads, in part:

Even in the best of circumstances, our system allows for error. We try criminal cases to a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is a higher standard than the burden in civil cases, but it is not “beyond all doubt.” Our system links an irrevocable punishment to a standard where jurors could have some nagging questions about the defendant’s guilt. The results demand pause. Since 1977, 20 people sentenced to death in Illinois have been freed because they were found innocent or the cases against them collapsed.

…. [O]ur criminal justice system, even when operated in the best of circumstances, is subject to flaws. As a matter of public respect for our justice system, we cannot tolerate error in execution. As a former prosecutor and your Lt. Governor, I urge you to end the death penalty in Illinois.

However, one group that has been disappointingly quiet about abolition of the death penalty is the Catholic Church in Illinois. EWTN News – which bills itself as the “Global Catholic Network” – reports that “[a]s Catholic groups campaign to end the death penalty in states around the U.S., focus has zoomed in on Illinois, which recently passed anti-death penalty legislation that is waiting to be signed into law by state Governor Pat Quinn,” but there appears to be precious little action on the ground here. The Catholic Conference of Illinois has issued a statement urging Gov. Quinn to sign the repeal bill (predictably tying it to abortion (.pdf file)), and the Archdiocese of Chicago (by far the largest diocese in Illinois, and one of the largest in the United States) has a link to the Catholic Conference of Illinois’ statement on the Archdiocese homepage, but that’s about it. Chicago’s Archbishop, Francis Cardinal George, who just last November made it his business to publicly denounce legislation creating civil unions in Illinois, has not, so far as I can tell, issued any statement urging Gov. Quinn to sign the death penalty repeal bill. If your Googling skills are better than mine, please let me know – but I’ve searched for any public statement by Cardinal George supporting the repeal bill and I’ve come up with nothing.

Finally, there’s this odd twist in the controversy over Illinois’ repeal of the death penalty:

[Gov. Quinn] even got whacked Monday by a DuPage County [Illinois] judge, a Republican, who said it was “grossly irresponsible” to be dithering.

The judge is John J. Kinsella, a former prosecutor involved in the shameful prosecution of Rolando Cruz in the 1983 rape-murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. He was chief prosecutor in Mr. Cruz’s third trial, when the defendant was finally acquitted long after having been wrongly convicted and stuck on death row.

Judge Kinsella was not emitting what some would call “a cry from the heart” over merits of the death penalty. He was just saying that the uncertainty over the death penalty was clouding the murder trial of an Addison man scheduled for his courtroom and that he wished the governor would fish or cut bait.

Since I practice in DuPage County, I’ll refrain from discussing Judge Kineslla’s comments, other than to say this: One cannot overstate how ironic it is that a former prosecutor involved in one of the most notoriously botched death penalty cases in Illinois history would say anything about the subject, let alone criticize the Governor for agonizing over the decision whether to sign the bill. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has all the background you need to understand that particular travesty of justice here, and you can find the individual columns he wrote about the Nicarico case here.

In any event, pressure is mounting on Gov. Quinn to make a decision with regard to the repeal legislation, but he has yet to indicate which way he is leaning. I think Gov. Quinn is a good man, but it is disheartening, to say the least, that we do not know if he will sign the repeal bill. Having said that, I think this is just the kind of moment that was made for Pat Quinn. He’s been an outsider all his political life; he’s a reformer, a genuinely moral and ethical guy, and he’s never been one to act on the basis of political expediency.

More than anything you’ve ever done in your estimable political career, Gov. Quinn, this is your legacy. Do what you know is right, and bring our state into the light of civilization.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon DEAD WRONG: Death Penalty
    Dudley Sharp


    First, in her letter to Governor Quinn, the Lt. Governor states that "Since 1977, 20 people sentenced to death in Illinois have been freed because they were found innocent or the cases against them collapsed."

    It is important to define, specifically, how many cases are truly, provably innocent.

    The Lt. Governor's alleged concern is over executing an actually innocent person, not a legally innocent person whose case collapsed, the number for which is considerably higher than 20, as she knows.

    We cannot execute a "case collapsed", legally innocent person. It is impossible to do so.

    Therefore, she, as all of us, must be specific to the truly innocent sent to death row, as her concern is specific to executing an actually innocent person.

    Does it matter if the number is 1, 5 or 10? Yes, it does.

    Facts and truth do matter, just as the definable risk of executing an actual innocent matters, as that is her alleged concern.

    Let's be clear, factual and specific.


    The Lt. Gov. fails to mention that there are two flaws that can be made.

    One is the risk to innocents when we execute. The other is the risk to innocents when we fail to execute murderers.

    The second risk is much higher than the former. Therefore, the Lt. Governor's position puts more innocents at risk.

    While there is no confirmable case of an innocent executed in Illinois since 1973, there are numbers of cases of innocents that have been harmed or murdered by known murderers.

    If the Lt. Governor's concern is over innocents killed because of government error in the criminal justice system, her efforts would be to ban parole, probation and other early releases of violent offenders, where the evidence of innocents killed is overwhelming, contrary to the death penalty, where there are none.

    Enhanced due process

    It is well known that the due process protections of the death penalty are much greater than for any other sanctions. Therefore, we know that pre trial, trial, appeals and commutation/clemency protections are much greater for those facing the death penalty, meaning, absent the death penalty, those sentenced to life are more likely to die, an innocent in jail, than it is likely that an innocent will be executed.

    Enhanced incapacitation

    Executed murderers are infinitely less likely to harm and murder, again than are lifers, who can and do harm and murder, again in prison, after escape and after improper release.


  2. contd

    Enhanced deterrence

    1) Anti death penalty folks say that the burden of proof is on those who say that the death penalty deters. Untrue. It is a rational truism that all potential negative outcomes deter some - there is no exception. It is the burden of death penalty opponents to prove that the death penalty, the most severe of criminal sanctions, is the only prospect of a negative outcome that deters none.
    2) There have been 27 recent studies finding for death penalty deterrence. A few of those have been criticized. The criticism has, itself been rebutted and/or the criticism doesn't negate no. 1 or nos. 3-10.
    3) No deterrence study finds that the death penalty deters none. They cannot.
    4) About 99% of those murderers who are subject to the death penalty do everything they can to receive a lesser sentence, in pre trial, plea bargains, trial, in appeals and in clemency/commutation proceedings. No surprise. Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. No surprise. It is rational to expect that a more rational group, those who chose not to murder, also share in that overwhelming fear of death and that some of them will be so deterred by the prospects of the death penalty.
    5) There are a number of known cases of individual deterrence, those potential murderers who have stated that they were prevented from committing murder because of their fear of the death penalty. Individual deterrence exists.
    6) General deterrence exists because individual deterrence cannot exist without it.
    7) Some say that there is no proof that the death penalty is a greater deterrent than a life sentence. If true, then the death penalty is still a deterrent. No. 4, above, provides overwhelming anecdotal evidence that the death penalty is a greater deterrent than a life sentence. In addition, the 27 studies finding for deterrence, find that the death penalty is an enhanced deterrent over a life sentence.
    8) All criminal sanctions deter. If you doubt that, what do you think would happen if we ended all criminal sanctions? No rational person has any doubt. Some would have us, irrationally, believe that the most severe sanction, execution, is the only sanction which doesn't deter.
    9) If we execute and there is no deterrence, we have justly punished a murderer and have prevented that murderer from ever harming/murdering, again. If we execute and there is deterrence, we have those benefits, plus we have spared more innocent lives. If we don't execute and there is deterrence, we have spared murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths.
    10) Overwhelmingly, people prefer life over death and fear death more than life.

    "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."
    John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science

  3. from Dudley Sharp, 1/29/11

    Dear Gov. Quinn:

    I don't know if your Catholic faith will have any affect on your death penalty decision.

    Often there is some confusion.

    Any Catholic can support the death penalty, as well as an increase in executions, if their prudential judgement concludes that is just and they will remain a Catholic in good standing. The death penalty remains morally licit in Catholic teaching and always will.

    2004, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with guidance to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated succinctly, emphatically and unambiguously as follows:

    June, 2004 ". . . . if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia." (1)

    A prudential review:

    The current Catechism instructs:

    2267: "The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor."

    This passage could hardly be more misleading.

    The traditional teachings of the Church neither exclude recourse to the death penalty nor so restrict it as to make it, virtually, useless, as 2267 imagines. Much more often, biblical instruction and tradition insist on the death penalty being imposed, describes those many sins/crimes for which it shall be imposed and, otherwise, reviews the legitimacy of the death penalty (2). 2267 has a secular foundation built upon the state of penal institutions, not upon the traditional teachings of the Church.

    The works of biblical scholars and theologians through today (2010) provide a foundation of death penalty support which, in breadth and depth, overwhelms the writings in conflict with that support. This is reinforced with both the word and deeds of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit in the New Testament as well as nearly countless Catholic Scholars (2).

    Catholic teaching has always defended the innocent from unjust aggressors and whether in self defense, a just war or in the execution of murderers, all protect the innocent from unjust aggressors, with the death penalty providing greater protection than a life sentence (3).


  4. contd

    Pope (and Saint) Pius V

    "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

    Pope Pius XII

    "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.

    1) "More Concerned with 'Comfort' than Christ?", Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Catholic Online, 7/11/2004,

    2) "Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars",

    "Christianity and the death penalty",

    "Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty",

    "Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty",

    The Death Penalty: Saving Innocent Lives

    Of all human endeavors that put innocents at risk, is there one with a better record of sparing innocent lives than the US death penalty? Unlikely.

    1) "The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

    2) Opponents in capital punishment have blood on their hands, Dennis Prager, 11/29/05,