Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Abolish executions, commute sentences, upset the status quo – it’s the only way

QUINN: One more month to make up his mind
Illinois law gives Gov. Pat Quinn a little over one more month to make up his mind what to do with the bill approved by the old state Legislature that abolishes capital punishment. Yet the sooner Quinn realizes that there’s no way he can get out of this situation without upsetting somebody, the better off he (and we) will be.

There’s no compromise when it comes to the death penalty. Some people in Illinois are going to be completely outraged, no matter what Quinn chooses to do. Any attempt by him to create a chain reaction of legislation to appease people will be perceived as nothing but phony gestures, for which he will be lambasted even more than had he just acted on the bill and left it at that.

FOR THOSE WHOSE attention span is so short that you’ve already forgotten who won the Super Bowl, what is at stake is the capital crimes statute in Illinois.

The General Assembly, on its final day of business last month before transitioning into the new Legislature that was elected in November, did what some people considered to be the unthinkable – they did away with the idea of killing people as punishment for a crime.

No longer will the total number of homicides in Alexander County be inflated by the number of executions conducted at the state prison near Tamms.

Unless Quinn uses his “veto” power to kill the bill. Which he can do because he’s in the rare set of circumstances where he gets the last word. The old Legislature that approved abolition no longer exists, so they’re not capable of convening to try to override a Quinn veto.

THE REALITY OF the situation is that Quinn ideologically is inclined to support the people who would want to do away with the death penalty. He may have said during the campaign last year that he would let the death penalty remain, but he also was the candidate who wanted to keep the moratorium in place that prevents anyone on “death row” from actually being put to death.

Which means the bottom line for Quinn is that he didn’t want to be presiding over executions on his watch. Illinoisans who wanted the state to resume executions (there haven’t been any since 1999 when Andrew Kokoraleis was put to death by lethal injection) largely voted for Quinn’s Republican challenger, William Brady, who pledged during the campaign to lift the moratorium.

It is because of those circumstances that I think the people who are saying Quinn is obligated to veto the abolition bill because of his campaign promise are missing the point. I’m convinced Quinn only threw in the additional rhetoric because he never would have dreamed the state Legislature could get its act together and pass a bill to do away with the death penalty.

But they did.

AND NOW, THE matter lies within Quinn’s hands, since he’s also going to have to decide what to do with the 15 people now on death row, and the one or two individuals whose trials currently are pending who may wind up being sentenced to death before Quinn gets off his duff and acts.

If he vetoes and does not commute those sentences (realistically, the two acts must be done together, which may be the only thing death penalty proponent Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin Lyons and I agree on), Quinn will upset the people who for the past two decades have worked to show how flawed our state’s capital crimes setup truly is.

Or he’s going to infuriate the conservative ideologues who drool over the image of a state that kills people for punishment. I’m talking about those goofs who had nothing better to do with their lives back in the 1990s than to show up outside of the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet to rally for the deaths of the condemned – while also taunting those who showed up to protest the act.

Yes, I went from apathetic death penalty opponent to stringent one the night in 1994 when John Gacy was put to death, and I got to see people wearing t-shirts bearing slogans such as “No Tears For The Clown” heckle a nun who was trying to pray for Gacy’s soul.

I’M SURE THOSE people will be ticked off at Quinn if he signs the bill into law. But then again, perhaps their offense is evidence that we’re doing something right. Besides, I doubt that Quinn could do anything to truly please this type of person – who probably voted against him for a myriad of reasons, not just capital punishment.

There also are those people who are talking up some sort of legislative compromise, such as Quinn signs the abolition bill into law, then lobbies the General Assembly to create a new capital crimes statute – one that supposedly has safeguards and is so restrictive that its potential for abuse is minimal.

Doesn’t that sound sweet? It’s just too bad that it’s pure fantasy. You might as well tell me the Chicago Cubs are going to win the World Series this season.

If our Legislature were capable of coming up with that kind of statute, they would have amended the old death penalty laws years ago. Heck, the reason Ryan ultimately went with moratorium, then commutation of sentences for all 160-plus death row inmates in Illinois, was because the General Assembly didn’t want to touch the issue.

EVEN IN YEARS since, they have been reluctant to do a thing with the issue. It is why action as drastic as abolition is called for.

For what it’s worth, I can think of one other reason for Illinois to join the ranks of 15 other states that don’t have a death penalty. There are those who will claim that we ought to be with the majority 35 states, but I can’t help but notice that the 15 include our Midwestern neighbors of Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I have always thought the Midwestern U.S. had a little more sense on many issues. Perhaps it’s time we got with the program that our neighbor states realized many years ago.


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