We Need Abolition!

Spotlight On Illinois

By: John Coursey and Alice Kim

All eyes have been on Illinois where Gov. George Ryan said that he was considering blanket commutations of the state’s death sentences.

In mid-October, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board conducted hearings reviewing the cases of 142 death row prisoners who submitted petitions requesting clemency. For nearly two weeks, attorneys, death penalty experts and family members of prisoners and victims testified before members of the board to make their case for and against commutations.

The hearings have reignited the death penalty debate. In the name of championing victims’ rights, defenders of the death penalty system say that the "worst of the worst" get the death penalty and deserve it. Prosecutors and police used the hearings as a way to deflect attention from Illinois’ broken death penalty system. Pro-death penalty forces captured the media’s attention by exploiting the anguished voices of family members who lost their loved ones to violent crime.

In response, Ryan backed down from previous statements indicating that he might issue blanket commutations. "I would guess at this point that I have pretty much ruled out blanket commutations based on the hearings and the information that I’ve gathered," said Ryan.

But for abolitionists, the fight is far from over. It is up to the abolitionist community to make the case for commutations and counter the pro-death penalty backlash.

Every death sentence that has been handed down since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois was done so under a broken system. And since 1976, 13 innocent people have been released from Illinois’ death row, and 12 have been executed. The horror of executing an innocent person convinced Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in January 2000.

The system that Ryan halted is still broken. Omar Saunders, who spent 15 years of a life sentence behind bars before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, is living proof of this broken system.

"I did 15 years in prison for a crime that I did not commit, the Lori Roscetti murder," said Saunders, who spoke at a press conference organized by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty on the second day of the clemency hearings. For 15 years, the family of the victim thought that we were the killers. Had we been given the death penalty, we would be dead today. So, I’m for the governor commuting all the death sentences. The people and the families should really be mad at the state’s attorney’s office because they caused this dilemma."

A blanket commutation of all Illinois death sentences would be historic, and abolitionists are continuing the fight for commutations as a step towards abolition.

Beyond Illinois, our movement has witnessed victories as well as setbacks in recent months. In September, U.S. District Judge William Sessions became the second judge in just three months to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Sessions’ decision brings forward yet another dissenting voice against the legitimacy of state-sponsored killing. As he wrote in his opinion, "capital punishment is under siege." On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court recently voted 6-3 in favor of allowing Texas to kill a juvenile offender in spite of growing opposition to the execution of juveniles in the U.S.

In Maryland and Illinois, the two states with moratoriums on executions, the death penalty hangs in the balance. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor support the death penalty and could bring back the death penalty in their respective states. Make no mistake, we have a fight on our hands.