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.