Saturday 5 February 2011

Quinn to consider death row inmates in decision on death penalty abolition

Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday said he would decide the fate of inmates now on death row when he reaches a decision on whether to sign legislation abolishing the death penalty.
Lawmakers last month passed a measure that would end the death penalty in Illinois, but the legislation excludes the 15 inmates now on death row. That point was noted to Quinn, and he was asked if he was considering commuting the sentences of those inmates.
The governor is the only state official authorized to commute death row sentences.
Lawmakers narrowly approved the abolition measure during the lame-duck session after a long and often-emotional debate. Supporters pointed to multiple death row exonerations, while opponents argued the threat of capital punishment is a tool used by law enforcement to garner confessions from alleged killers.
The state constitution allows the governor 60 days to act on legislation after it is sent to his desk, or it becomes law without his signature. The proposal was sent to Quinn on Jan. 18.
Quinn said his decision will come in “a few weeks.” In the meantime, he said he has taken time to “listen to the dialogue of the people, reflect and pray.”
Quinn has said in the past that he supports capital punishment for the most heinous of crimes, but he also has kept in place the moratorium on the death penalty imposed in 2000 by former Gov. George Ryan. Ryan in January 2003 then cleared out death row, commuting the sentences of all inmates.
As the main proponent of the legislation, the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and its supporters are patiently waiting for Quinn’s decision.
“Obviously, we want him to sign it, but we’ve really stressed that the governor should take as much time as he needs,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director.
County state’s attorneys, however, favor capital punishment, and are hoping Quinn keeps it in place.
Coles County State’s Attorney Steve Ferguson in February 2003 successfully prosecuted and got the death sentence for Anthony Mertz, who was convicted of killing a female Eastern Illinois University student. Mertz was the first inmate to be sent to death row following Ryan’s blanket commutations, and still resides there.
Ferguson said he doesn’t begrudge Quinn the time he needs to reach a decision.
“He certainly seems to be putting more deliberation and time into this than the legislature did, and I’m thankful for that,” Ferguson said.
Kevin Lyons, state’s attorney for Peoria County, traveled to the state Capitol several times to testify against the abolition bill. He noted that if Quinn signs the legislation, he would also have to act in favor of the inmates now on death row.
“Fairness would demand that if the death penalty is abolished, those persons would surely have to have their sentences commuted by governor act to life without parole,” Lyons said. “Fairness would require it.”
But a political observer noted the Democratic governor’s conundrum: Quinn narrowly supports the death penalty, but has been handed abolition legislation by a Democratic Legislature.
“It does put him in a bit of a box,” said Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield.
However, Quinn could sign the legislation, and then ask the newly elected, more conservative Legislature to craft a narrowly defined death penalty, Redfield said.
“That seems to be the only kind of out he has right now,” he said.

Mary Massingale

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