Justice upheld: Illinois repeals it’s archaic death penalty

June 28th, 2018

By Dean I Weitzman, Esq.


The availability of the death penalty as a sentence for heinous crimes in the United States raises searing emotions on both sides, but one thing is for certain: it is irreversible.

That’s why the repeal this week of the death penalty in Illinois was the right thing to do.


Because, as Gov.  Pat Quinn of Illinois said so eloquently when he signed the bill, “We cannot have a death penalty in our state that kills innocent people.  If the system cannot be guaranteed 100 percent error free, then we cannot have the system.  It cannot stand.  It just is not right.”

Justice sign on a courthouse.

Justice sign on a courthouse. Image credit: ©

That’s the problem with the death penalty in 34 states in this country.  Once someone is put to death, they can’t be brought back if and when new evidence comes to light.

Quinn’s comments, which were published in the Chicago Sun-Times, laid bare a simple truth in the complex system of crime and punishment that we have established – punishing the guilty is a must, but putting innocent people to death for crimes they ultimately did not commit is simply not acceptable in a just society.

Quinn didn’t reach his decision lightly. He certainly heard heart-wrenching stories first-hand of the intense pain and grief felt by the families of victims of horrific crimes, according to the Sun-Times.

In the end, though, he reached the conclusion that righting the wrongs of the death penalty was paramount in Illinois.  “I do believe the death penalty should be abolished in our state because of mistakes that were made …  and also because there are other means of punishment,”  the Sun-Times reported.  “I have listened to many, many people on both sides of this issue.  Over the last two months I deliberately set up a time of reflection and review, study …  to come to my decision.”

Even the conservative Chicago Tribune backed the governor for making the move.

“Recognizing the intractable flaws of a system that sent at least 20 innocent men to death row, Illinois has taken a difficult but courageous step,” the Tribune published in an editorial.  “No government can sanction an instrument of justice that takes such risks with the lives of innocent people.”

“Illinois will no longer risk executing an innocent person,” the Tribune said in its editorial.  “Illinois is better off without the death penalty.”

Only 16 of the 50 U.S. states – now including Illinois – forbid executions. That leaves the 34 remaining states, including Pennsylvania, which still allow the death penalty,  according to the Washington-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  There is also no death penalty in the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico.

Since 1976,  according to the group,  1,234 prisoners have been executed in the U.S.,  including 46 nationwide last year.

Before Illinois,  New Jersey was the last state – in 2007 – to overturn the death penalty.

The finality of the death penalty is truly its major flaw.

Supporters argue its importance as a deterrent against crime.  They often also argue that it has always been justly handed down and that never has an innocent person been put to death.

The latter may not be true, however.

In Texas in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed after he was convicted of setting a fire in his home that killed his three young daughters in 1991. He continuously maintained that he had not committed the crime, according to The Innocence Project. A 17-page analysis of the case, published in The New Yorker in 2009, detailed how many of the arson analysis methods used to convict Willingham were later found to be flawed.

The Willingham case continues to haunt death penalty opponents.

There have been other cases that remain in doubt.

In San Antonio, Texas, in 1993, Ruben Cantu was executed after being convicted of murdering another man in a robbery. Cantu was 17 when he was convicted. He was 26 when he was put to death. “A dozen years after his execution, a Houston Chronicle investigation suggests that Cantu, a former special-ed student who grew up in a tough neighborhood on the south side of San Antonio, was likely telling the truth,” the paper reported in 2006.  His accomplice, the paper reported, “signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed his friend to be falsely accused, though Cantu wasn’t with him the night of the killing.”

In addition, the lone eyewitness recanted his earlier testimony that placed Cantu as the shooter, the Chronicle reported.  The eyewitness told the paper “he felt pressured by police to identify the boy as the killer. Cantu “was innocent.  It was a case of an innocent person being killed,” the eyewitness told the paper.

Last November, a story in New York magazine reported that another Texas prisoner, Claude Jones, was executed in 2000 after his request was denied for DNA testing on evidence used in his murder conviction.  Jones’ attorneys asked that a single strand of hair found at the crime scene be tested for DNA to prove his innocence, the story said. After his execution, DNA tests ultimately showed that the hair belonged to the murder victim, not to Jones, New York reported.  “Anti–death penalty advocates are hoping Jones could be the first-ever executed person exonerated by DNA evidence,” the magazine wrote.

This issue is very real.

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6 to 3 to allow Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner to seek crime scene DNA evidence that could clear him for three murders, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times. Skinner literally was within an hour of being put to death when the court stayed his execution and agreed in March 2010 to hear his case, according to the non-profit Innocence Project, a legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing.

Had Skinner been put to death already, this evidence that could possibly clear him would be moot.

If executions take place, there is simply no going back in the event or legal errors, omissions or false testimony.

Here at MyPhillyLawyer, we wrote on this very blog back in December 2009 about the terrifying case of James Bain, who spent 35 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Bain was freed after DNA testing determined that he was not the man who kidnapped and raped a nine-year-old boy in Florida back in 1974.

At the time of his release from prison, Bain was the 248th person exonerated of crimes due to DNA testing in our nation, according to The Innocence Project.  Today, that number stands at 266 former prisoners.

“No one can give James Bain those 35 years back, but his experience underscores again that our system of law is not without flaws and can allow innocent people to be imprisoned for decades,” we wrote in this blog at that time.

The horrific reality, though, is that had Bain’s alleged crime been subject to a death penalty, he could have been wrongly executed before his ultimate release.

That would have meant that an innocent man would have been put to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

In this nation, in this world, that is simply unacceptable.

We applaud the governor of Illinois for repealing that state’s death penalty and we hope that the remaining 34 states that still have these archaic and inhumane punishments on their books soon follow suit.

If even one innocent person is wrongly executed in this country, that is too many.

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