Illinois’ Death Penalty

Still Too Flawed to Fix

By: Julien Ball

It’s now been seven years since Illinois declared a moratorium on executions. Former Gov. George Ryan called the death penalty system in Illinois, “broken” and was compelled to shut it down.

It is a shameful record—one that executed 12 and freed 13—that led Ryan to enact the moratorium on executions and decide the system was so flawed that he had to grant clemency to all 167 death row prisoners—and pardon four of the Death Row 10—Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson.

Ryan’s action sparked a debate in the state legislature that led to limited reforms to the death penalty, including the curtailment of jailhouse informant testimony and the videotaping of interrogations. A commission that Ryan had appointed released a report in 2002 that recommended 85 reforms to the system, but concluded that “no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised that would work perfectly and absolutely guarantee that no innocent person is ever again put to death.”

Since the initial reform bill passed in 2003, however, the state legislature has been unable or unwilling even to tackle the reforms that Ryan’s commission suggested. To date, less than a third of the recommendations have been enacted into law. Meanwhile, the state legislature formed the Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee in 2004 to report on the impact of reforms, but this commission is not scheduled to complete its work until November 2008.

Fortunately, there are signs that things are beginning to shift. On March 25, the Chicago Tribune reversed its long-held support for capital punishment and published an editorial in favor of abolition of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, state Sens. Rickey Hendon, Mattie Hunter, Kwame Raoul and Jacqueline Collins, working together with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), introduced SB 328, which would abolish the death penalty in Illinois. The bill, which the Springfield Journal-Register had called a “long shot” on March 4, seems to have gained support since publication of the Tribune editorial.

On March 28, on 24 hour’s notice, a half-dozen CEDP members traveled to Springfield, the state capital, for Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the bill. Although two state senators—Democrat John Cullerton, an opponent of the death penalty, and Republican Kirk Dillard, a potential swing voter on the committee, who could have tipped the balance in favor of the bill—were absent for the hearing, the bill still has a chance to be voted out of committee for debate on the Senate floor in the spring session. Although the committee did not vote on March 28, its members appeared to listen attentively as Illinois’ first exonerated death row prisoner Darby Tillis and this writer testified to the ongoing flaws of the system.

The time for abolition legislation is long overdue. According to a new report, the flaws of the death penalty remain serious, and the system is not fixing itself.

The report, “Capital Punishment in Illinois: Rejecting a Failed Policy,” was released by the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in January. It shows that the death penalty continues to target the poor, African-Americans, Latinos and the mentally ill. It also shows that use of the death penalty continues to be a political tool, with only a couple of counties accounting for the vast majority of death cases, and others not seeking the death penalty at all.

In a state where approximately 27 percent of the population is African-American or Latino, 15 percent of defendants in capital cases are Latino and a whopping 69 percent are African-American. Of the 11 people sentenced to death since 2003, a majority has a history of mental illness.

Cook County and Chicago currently account for 151 of the active capital cases in Illinois. The other 101 Illinois counties had only a combined 16 active capital cases. In Cook County, roughly 80 percent of capital defendants rely on a public defender because they do not have funds to hire a private attorney.

Shirley Henderson’s husband Jerry is fighting first-degree murder charges and could receive the death penalty if convicted. A supporter of SB 328 and member of the CEDP, Shirley says that it has been a struggle finding a competent attorney with the resources to mount a proper legal defense for her husband. “What I have found is that if you do not have a bunch of money—I mean in excess of $50,000—to give them upfront…they don’t like talking about what their job should be in defending your loved one,” Shirley said.

She says that prosecutors and public officials who believe the system can be reformed are out of touch. “[T]hey need to be walking down the street, have someone say ‘you’re coming with us’ without any notice, and get hauled into county jail,” she says. “As long as they think it’s not affecting them, they’ll be for the death penalty. But let it affect their loved ones. Then they would change their tune.”