Opposition to Death Penalty Builds in Illinois
By: Joan Parkin
The release of Illinois’ tenth wrongfully convicted death-row inmate, Anthony Porter, in February has sparked the first statewide initiative towards a moratorium since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
Overnight, the Illinois criminal justice system seemed to implode. Porter became an international media sensation, and the death penalty became front-page news. Anti-death penalty activists were rallying by the hundreds to discuss the moratorium, and public officials were falling over themselves to talk about the death penalty. Within hours of a well-publicized civil disobedience action at a City Council meeting, Mayor Richard Daley agreed to talk about the moratorium.
Responding to a shift in public opinion – more than 54 percent of residents are now in favor of a moratorium and support for the death penalty has dropped 15 percent – both the Illinois House of Representatives and Supreme Court established commissions to study the death penalty.
Public pressure pushed the Illinois House to consider a bill calling for a six-month moratorium on executions. But the bill’s sponsors, fearing it wouldn’t pass a House vote, introduced a non-binding resolution to set up a 12-member panel to review death-penalty cases and urge Gov. George Ryan to call for a moratorium. The resolution passed, but the moratorium bill is still pending.
There is also a de facto moratorium in place because Illinois justices will not meet to plan a new execution until September. It’s rumored that in response to public pressure they will not plan another execution until after the new year.
But many are angered that Ryan went ahead with the scheduled execution of Andrew Kokoraleis last month.
Perry Cobb, the first of 11 people released from Illinois’ death row, is not satisfied. He told the New Abolitionist: “The resolution was good because it keeps the moratorium alive.” But he feels more action needs to be taken. “You’ve got innocent people on death row who you can’t give their time back,” Cobb said. “It’s pre-meditated murder. Lawmakers who make the law shouldn’t be allowed to break it.”
Overall, there is a tremendous amount of skepticism. Post-conviction attorney Aviva Futorian is glad the resolution passed, but doubts that review committees – like one recently set up by State’s Attorney Dick Devine – will amount to much. “It’s like the fox watching the hen house,” Aviva said.
Bill Ryan, founder of the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign, supports the resolution but fears that the House commission will only review the death penalty on a case-by-case basis, “while ignoring the more systemic problems of Illinois’ capital punishment, like racism and poverty,” he said.
More and more Illinois residents now fear that the system can fail. Statistically, Illinois is second only to Florida in the number of innocent people released from death row. And racially, it is one of the Blackest death rows in the country – 67 percent of the 162 Illinois death-row inmates are Black compared with 40 percent nationally.
For death penalty abolitionists, the events in Illinois are nothing short of fantastic. Who could have predicted that Illinois would be the center of a fightback against the death penalty; that Anthony Porter, who once came within two days of being executed, would walk free; and that every politician from the Chicago mayor to the governor would be talking about a moratorium?
Yet the fight continues. We still don’t have an official moratorium, and politicians are merely trying to let off steam while avoiding legislation that would halt executions.
But most importantly, the struggle in Illinois could have a national impact. Inadequate council, corrupt prosecutors, police brutality and tainted judges are not unique to Illinois. The rest of the Western world has come out against the use of the barbaric death penalty in the U.S. And Illinois’ successes could set a trend for the rest of the country.
According to Alice Kim, Chicago organizer for the Campaign, “We are only at the beginning of the fight for a moratorium. Our success will be measured on how well activists link the fight for a moratorium to a movement towards abolition.”