Kicking the death penalty out of Illinois


The March for Abolition in Chicago, May 14 2002
By: Marlene Martin

As of this writing, the death penalty is hanging on by a thread in Illinois. 

Both the state House and Senate have passed legislation that will abolish the death penalty. As of mid-January, that bill sat on the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn. With his signature—and it was still not certain as the New Abolitionist was being produced that Quinn would sign the legislation—Illinois would become the 16th state without the death penalty.           

Exonerated Illinois death row prisoners like Nathson Fields feel the significance of this moment, even before Quinn had announced his decision. “I feel elated, full of hope,” said Fields. “I spent eleven and a half years on death row for a crime I did not commit. Illinois being on the verge of tossing out the death penalty—this will affect other states. This will send the message that it can be done, it should be done.”           

Darby Tillis, the first exonerated death row prisoner in Illinois talked about the significance of activism in getting us to this point. “All the work I’ve done with others has not been in vain. It been proven to me that together we can overcome barriers. When people come together—that’s powerful, there is power in numbers.”           

On January 6, the state House voted 60-54 in favor of repeal. Abolition came on a second vote in the House—on the first vote, the bill fell short of passage by one vote. On January 11, the Senate voted 32-25 in favor of repeal.           

The bill abolishes the death penalty and puts money towards a fund for victim’s family members and for training for police officers. The bill does not change the fate of the 15 men who are currently under the sentence of death in Illinois. Legislators can’t alter a sentence imposed by the courts—only Governor Quinn can do this by commuting their sentences.           

It is unclear what Quinn will do as this article is being written. He is on the record as a supporter of the death penalty, yet he has kept the moratorium on executions in place. Quinn said he would meet with people for the next month before making his decision. Activist organizations like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty are seeking meetings with the governor.           

But Quinn need only look at the shameful record of the death penalty in Illinois to see that signing the repeal bill is the right thing to do. Since reinstatement of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977, 12 people have been executed and 20 people have been exonerated. Of the 20 people who were proven innocent and freed, 14 are Black or Latino men, and six were tortured by racist Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge. The rate of death row exonerations is the second highest in the country after Florida.           

“The death penalty in Illinois is clearly broken,” said Nathson Fields, one of the exonerees. “There are 20 exonerated men. Not one—twenty! You just need to throw the death penalty away.”           

While “reforms” suggested by a death penalty reform commission were supposed to ensure that executions were carried out in a fair manner, the flaws continue to be rampant.           

Race and class continue to be prominent factors in who prosecutors seek the death penalty for. In 2009, nearly 80 percent of capital defendants were Black, and 14 percent were Latino. And 80 percent of these defendants were too poor to afford their own lawyer. Instead, they were given public defenders. These attorneys are often overworked and underpaid, and have few funds available to afford forensic specialists or ballistic and arson experts. Often times, little investigation is done to “defend” a client. By contrast, the prosecutors are extremely well-funded and are able to fly in experts to testify. On average, prosecutors outspend public defenders by about 3 to 1.           

Activists in Illinois hope Quinn is moved to do the right thing, like former Governor Ryan was in 2000 and 2003.           

Back then, Illinois was ground zero of the death penalty fight. Eleven years ago, Ryan, a pro-death penalty Republican who admitted that he had not given any thought to the issue of the death penalty when he came into office, suddenly found himself imposing a moratorium, and three years later, commuting all 167 death sentences and pardoning four African American men who had been tortured by Chicago cops.           

Ryan had a change of heart when he saw the unfair, racist way the system worked and how likely it was that an innocent person could be executed. And all of this was brought to his attention by the hard work of activists. Forums, rallies, press conferences and meetings all urged the governor to do the right thing.           

As Ryan considered his final act of clearing death row in 2003, journalists wrote in-depth stories on the flaws of the death penalty, and lawyers stood up and spoke out. Family members of death row prisoners met with Ryan, pleading with him to commute all of the death sentences.           

Darby Tillis explained how the activism compared to today, “When we started out with our protesting, people looked at us like we were crazy,” he said. “We were an energetic group of people that was seeking justice. We marched and we rallied through the streets of Chicago until we were heard. Now, it’s no longer popular to speak up for the death penalty—that’s how discredited it is.”           

Darby went on to suggest that the reason the politicians voted for repeal is deeper than a cost-saving measure, as it has been portrayed by some. “The politicians didn’t vote for repeal just because it will save the state money,” Tillis said. “It’s more than that. When the bill passed the House and was yet to be voted on in the Senate, I said to myself, “Watch there be some heinous crime.” And then there was the tragedy in Tucson. I thought that might set the Senate vote back. But people saw that the death penalty did not deter him [Jared Lee Loughner]—it wouldnd’t have prevented that crime from happening.”           

Statistics show that the death penalty is falling out of favor with jurors in Illinois. In 2009 and 2010, only one person each year was sentenced to death—in previous years, the number sentenced to death was 10.           

Cathy McMillan sees another positive aspect of not having the death penalty—that prosecutors will no longer be able to threaten defendants with being executed. “They use it as a way to try to get a person to plead guilty because they are afraid that if they don’t, they could get the death penalty,” McMillan said.           

She also points out how families won’t have to agonize whether their loved one will get the death penalty. Cathy’s brother had been charged with a heinous crime and “the question I kept asking all of the attorneys was, ‘Is my brother eligible for the death penalty?’” she said.           

Cathy feels hopeful that families may no longer have to go through the worry she once did. Now a longstanding anti-death penalty activist, Cathy states, “I’ve come to know Darby and some of the exonerated. I know the state isn’t careful about using their power. I used to wonder if Darby would be here to see the death penalty abolished. And to be able to celebrate that with him would be special.”           

Activists in Illinois hope Quinn is moved to do the right thing. But we aren’t leaving that up to fate. We’re sending our message to Quinn by phone, fax and postcard, and we have a demonstration in the works for February 15. We want bring the voices of people like Mark Clements to him.          

Mark was 16 years old when he was picked up in 1981 and tortured by police officers working under the command of Jon Burge, “If I was a few years older when I was picked up, I would have probably gotten the death penalty,” said Mark, “and I would have probably been executed already, dead and buried.”           

Marx expresses apprehension about whether Quinn will sign the legislation, but adds, “If he does, it is a great step forward toward correcting injustice and enhanced sentencing.”           

No matter what Quinn does, the fight is far from over. As Randi Hensley of the Campaign said, “We have got keep the pressure up. I think we have a big fight left for medical health treatment—there are 2.4 million people who are incarcerated in this country, and our priorities are so messed up. It’s hard work, but we’re moving things in the right direction. This is a good fight, but we all have to realize that this is a long fight, and we just have to keep at it.”