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Illinois abolishes death penalty

By Aileen Donahue
On March 29, 2011

After weeks of deliberation, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Senate Bill 3539 on March 9, eliminating the state's death penalty and commuting the sentences of 15 inmates currently serving on death row to life imprisonment without parole.

The legislation follows a moratorium on capital punishment imposed by former Gov. George Ryan amid media concern that some of Illinois' death row inmates had been wrongly convicted.

In a statement accompanying the legislation, Gov. Quinn said that after listening to the views of a wide variety of people on both sides of the argument and reviewing the past cases of death row inmates who have since been exonerated, he concluded that the death penalty system was inherently flawed and that the only way to ensure justice was to abolish it.

"This was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death," Quinn said in his statement.

Quinn's decision makes Illinois the 16th state in the nation to ban capital punishment.

"This was not a decision to be made lightly, or a decision that I came to without deep personal reflection," he said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, told The Associated Press that the new law could influence other states and that Illinois' decision carries more weight than those of previous states that have abolished the death penalty.

"Illinois stands out because it was a state that used it, reconsidered it, and now rejected it," Dieter said.

Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), agreed, telling The Chicago Tribune, that Gov. Quinn's decision "shows the national momentum toward repealing the death penalty and all the efforts lift efforts in states like Texas."

However, Richland student Morgan Stephens is dubious about the effects of Illinois' decision on the use of capital punishment in the state of Texas.

"Texans are too prideful – there are a lot of them who want to keep [capital punishment] because it's tradition," Stephens said. "But maybe now that a lot of other states have gotten rid of the death penalty, things will be different," she said.

Texas has executed 466 individuals since 1977, according to statistics gathered by the TCADP. While a nationwide poll conducted in 2010 by Lake Research Partners suggests that 65 percent of U.S. voters would support abolishing the death penalty if funding was used for crime prevention, most Texans, including Gov. Rick Perry, strongly support its utilization.

Some opponents have cited the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three children and was executed in 2004. However, since his execution, a panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission has investigated the case and concluded that the original arson investigators used "flawed science" to determine if the fire had been arson.

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