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Illinois Issues
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Ends and Means: Public Opinion Appears to Have Shifted in the Capital Punishment Debate

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Ten years after former Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois, death penalty opponents say efforts to repeal capital punishment here are gaining momentum.

The guarded optimism is fueled in part by recent polling data they believe shows public support for capital punishment eroding, as Illinoisans reflect on a decade without executions.

The survey, conducted last spring, asked respondents what the penalty should be for murder and gave them three choices: death; life in prison with no chance of parole; or life imprisonment with an added requirement to work to make restitution to the victim’s family. Only about a third of those surveyed — 32 percent — chose execution, while 43 percent opted for life without parole and restitution, and 18 percent favored life imprisonment. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.9 percent.

“The poll in the spring really shows what we felt already,” says Jerome Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “The support is just not there for the death penalty when you get into the specifics.”

Schroeder says the Illinois poll reflects similar findings in national surveys, in which support for capital punishment declines if respondents are given alternatives such as life in prison with no possibility of parole, or if they’re told of the number of exonerations of death row inmates who were wrongfully convicted.

The poll appears to reflect an ongoing shift in the long-running public debate over capital punishment in Illinois.

When Illinois lawmakers voted to restore the death penalty in 1973, the argument then largely revolved around whether certain crimes were so horrible that society was obliged to demand the ultimate penalty of the perpetrator. Or, in concrete terms, should we put to death heinous offenders like John Wayne Gacy?

But serious flaws became apparent in death penalty administration over the succeeding three decades, leading Ryan to declare the moratorium after 13 death row inmates had been exonerated, including Anthony Porter, who was hours away from death when the Illinois Supreme Court stayed his execution. Porter was later cleared when another man confessed to the slaying for which he was convicted.

“I have grave concerns about our state’s shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row,” Ryan said at the time. “I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven to be so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life. ...

“How do you prevent another Anthony Porter — another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit?” the governor added. “Today, I cannot answer that question.” 

Since then, seven more men have been exonerated, and Ryan, in one of the last acts of his governorship, cleared Illinois’ death row in January 2003 by commuting the death sentences of 164 inmates to life in prison without parole. Three others’ were commuted to 40-year terms, and four inmates were pardoned.

As the state’s sorry track record developed over the years, the death penalty discussion gradually evolved into whether maintaining capital punishment was worth the risk of executing an innocent person. Again, in concrete terms, to be able to execute the Gacys, are we willing to put to death the Porters?

In efforts to eliminate the possibility, the state Supreme Court adopted rules requiring extensive training and experience for judges and attorneys in capital cases, and lawmakers in 2003 enacted a variety of reforms, including ones providing additional scientific resources and technical expertise for both sides in capital cases, to be paid from a newly created Capital Litigation Fund. Since its inception, more than $100 million has been paid from the fund for services such as DNA testing, expert witnesses and background investigations of defendants.

After living under the moratorium for the past decade, Illinoisans are rethinking the issue, Schroeder believes. For one thing, the dire consequences that capital punishment advocates forecast without a death penalty have not come to pass: The number of murders in the state, for example, has declined, from 898 in 2000 to 790 in 2008, according to the most recent annual uniform crime report compiled by the Illinois State Police. The rate — the number of murders per 100,000 population — also dipped from 7.2 in 2000 to 6.1 in 2008, a 15 percent drop.

Also, people still regularly see news reports of wrongful convictions, despite a sizable state investment — $17 million last year — for capital litigation costs, plus added expenses for counties in which cases are tried. Abolitionists argue the money could be better spent on programs and services to help victims’ families and on additional resources for law enforcement.

Moreover, capital cases seem to drag on through numerous appeals, precisely because no one involved wants any mistakes, but that prolongs the wait for justice for victims’ families.

Given such persistent problems, Schroeder believes Illinois is ready to join the other 15 states that have no death penalty, including three which abolished it in the last three years: New York, New Jersey and New Mexico.

“After studying for 10 years, we have found the answer: Repeal of the death penalty will solve all these problems,” he says.

Legislation to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole was introduced in both legislative chambers last year. The House version cleared committee but stalled. Its sponsor, state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, a Democrat from Maywood, is still hoping for a vote before the current General Assembly ends in January. If not, she plans to introduce the measure again next year.

“I’m committed to passing it,” she says. “The moratorium is fine, but it’s not good enough. The system is too broken to fix, and as long as you have humans involved, there are going to be mistakes.” 


As the state’s sorry track record developed over the years, the death penalty discussion gradually evolved into whether maintaining capital punishment was worth the risk of executing an innocent person.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He also serves on the advisory board of the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, which provides assistance to defense attorneys in wrongful conviction cases. 

Illinois Issues, September 2010

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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