I must confess to being oblivious at the time to the fact that I witnessed a potentially historic event when I was in far Southern Illinois in the early hours of March 17 a full 10 years ago.
I was among the press pool admitted to the Tamms Correctional Center, where the state keeps its death chamber for executions. As a result, I was among those who saw the death by lethal injection of Andrew Kokoraleis – who the way things look now could be the last person ever put to death legally in Illinois as punishment for a crime.
MOST OF MY memories of that evening involve making the long trip to the prison, which is located in the land where the locals think of themselves as living near Kentucky, not Chicago. You drive straight south until you hit Marion and Carbondale – then get hit with the realization that you still have one more hour to drive.
The execution of Kokoraleis – who allegedly was among a group that was killing and mutilating women as part of pseudo-Satanic rituals – was a routine matter. At least it was routine as death ever can be.
After spending the bulk of his last day of life reading a Bible, Kokoraleis recited from the books of Exodus and Proverbs as the mixture of three drugs was pumped into his veins. That caused him to go to sleep, then quit breathing before suffering a fatal heart attack that caused him to be pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m. a decade ago today.
The other aspect I remember was interviewing the father of the woman for whose murder Kokoraleis was put to death. Despite the claims of death penalty proponents that executions give family members closure, they don’t. This father said he was now determined to pray that Kokoraleis suffered in Hell – a truly cheerless thought.
AT THE TIME, the only thing really notable about the Kokoraleis execution was that it was the first to be performed at the brand-new Tamms prison. Much was made of the fact that this facility was designed for lethal injection, rather than the old deathhouse at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet – which was designed for electrocution and where condemned inmates were wheeled on a gurney to a spot underneath the fan that used to suck up the smoke that would emanate from the inmates strapped to the Electric Chair.
But now, it would appear that the death of Kokoraleis will be remembered for being the only execution to ever take place in Tamms, and the last in Illinois.
Because it was shortly after struggling with the death of Kokoraleis (even though he had no doubt personally about his guilt) that then-Gov. George Ryan imposed the moratorium that prevented death row inmates from actually having death dates scheduled for their executions.
It was the first step toward his end-of-term clearing out of “death row” on Illinois. None of his predecessors – Rod Blagojevich or Pat Quinn – have been willing to un-do the death penalty moratorium for Illinois.
SO NONE OF the roughly two dozen prison inmates in Illinois currently serving a death sentence are in danger of dying (except due to natural causes) anytime soon.
That has the people who oppose capital punishment (of which I will confess to being in their ranks) thinking that the state ought to just do away with a capital crimes statute. Why bother to go to the higher expense of maintaining the security necessary for condemned criminals if they’re not going to die?
It would be cheaper to just put them into the general population of Illinois’ prison system, which some death row inmates admit is a thought that scares them more than dying. After all, prisons are filled with criminals who can get violent rather easily.
Despite the notion that the idea of abolishment makes sense, it is not one I expect to see anytime soon. I don’t expect the Legislature to vote favorably on the bill by state Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, to do away with the death penalty.
IT MAY HAVE got a committee’s recommendation, but I will not be the least bit surprised when it dies a lingering (and quiet) death, at the hands of Illinois House leadership.
The simple fact is that capital punishment has become an issue upon which its supporters get irrationally fixated on. Even if the procedure isn’t being put to use, they still want it on the books.
That means the idea of acknowledging reality and making the law comply with actual practice isn’t going to happen.
It doesn’t matter how many people show up to protest at the Statehouse in Springpatch, or at the Thompson Center state government building.
THE PROTEST HELD last week at the state Capitol to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of the death of Kokoraleis was cute, but it didn’t do much of anything to sway the minds of the political people who have a say on this issue.
And personally, I would have taken the group a little more seriously if they had held their anniversary commemoration on Tuesday – the actual date – rather than last week Thursday when it might have been convenient for their group.
EDITOR’S NOTES: Some activists would like to make the execution of Andrew Kokoraleis (http://www.wgil.com/localnews.php?xnewsaction=fullnews&newsarch=032009&newsid=143) a significant turning point in their fight to abolish capital punishment in Illinois.
The thought of being in prison (http://daily-journal.com/archives/dj/display.php?id=436940) can scare even the most so-called violent of inmates.
The death of Kokoraleis turned a Greek Orthodox bishop into an activist opposed to (http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/1465652,CST-NWS-death08.article) the death penalty.
For what it is worth, following is the dispatch I filed for United Press International from Tamms, Ill., in the early hours of March 17, 1999, following the Kokoraleis execution.
Kokoraleis dies following legal dispute
By GREGORY TEJEDA
TAMMS, Ill., March 17 (UPI) – Illinois officials put Andrew Kokoraleis to death for the 1982 ritual slaying of a suburban Chicago woman.
Kokoraleis, 35, died by lethal injection early today, following a final day of legal appeals that briefly saw an Illinois Supreme Court justice try to postpone the execution indefinitely.
Kokoraleis spent his final day of life Tuesday at the Tamms Correctional Center, where he was under constant observation by prison officials.
He did not request a final meal, and spent the bulk of the day talking with his brother Nicholas and reading a Bible. Prison officials described his demeanor as “cooperative, calm and polite.”
Kokoraleis said he was at peace with himself, and asked the forgiveness of the family of his victim, Lorraine Borowski.
“I am truly sorry for your loss. I mean this sincerely,” Kokoraleis said.
As a lethal combination of three drugs was injected into his left arm, he quoted from the Bible, reading passages from the books of Exodus and Proverbs.
The drugs took about four minutes to take effect, putting Kokoraleis to sleep before he stopped breathing. Kokoraleis was pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m.
Kokoraleis became the first person put to death in the state’s new execution chamber at Tamms. Previously, executions were carried out at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
Kokoraleis died for the 1982 slaying of Borowski, and Elmhurst woman whom prosecutors say was butchered as part of a pseudo-Satanic ritual by Kokoraleis and three other men.
Prosecutors say as many as 18 women were killed in such a manner, and Kokoraleis was serving life prison terms for other slayings.
His attorneys argued he was not involved with the Borowski slaying, claiming he confessed to it only because he feared a beating by police.
Their appeals centered on the notion that more time was needed to thoroughly investigate the case.
Death penalty opponents also tried filing motions to delay the execution on the grounds that a review of Illinois’ death penalty law is needed, in light of the fact that 11 death row inmates in the past decade were later absolved of the crimes for which they were condemned.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in rejecting clemency for Kokoraleis, admitted concern about that aspect, saying he “struggled with his decision.”
But in the end, Ryan said, he denied clemency because “some crimes are so horrible and so heinous that society has a right to deal the ultimate penalty.”
Copyright 1999 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.