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Illinois Legislature Considers Abolishing Death Penalty

Death-penalty opponents in Illinois celebrated a brief victory recently in their quest to kill capital punishment in the Prairie State. Senate Bill 3539, which would abolish the state's death penalty next July, passed the House Judiciary Committee by a 4-3 vote in late November. Several prior attempts to eliminate the death penalty have been unsuccessful.

Despite clearing the committee, the bill faces an uphill battle to pass the entire legislature. Sixty votes were needed for it to pass the Illinois House; supporters are reporting that their votes are in the high fifties but not yet at the required number to guarantee passage. It appears that the bill has only a narrow window in the New Year up until the new lawmakers are sworn in on January 12.

Supporters of the bill are arguing that abolishing the death penalty will actually save the state money. They contend that the special legal reviews necessary for death-penalty cases are a waste of time because Illinois has not executed any prisoners since 2000. In that year, then-Gov. George Ryan issued a moratorium on executions, then issued blanket clemency and emptied death row. The moratorium continues in effect today. Yet death-penalty sentences are still being handed down, as evidenced by 15 inmates currently sitting on death row. However, there are still a substantial number of legislators who believe that the death penalty is appropriate in some cases and should be retained. Thus, the bill remains three votes short of Illinois House approval. according to some sources.

The Illinois death penalty has had a turbulent history since the United States Supreme Court struck down all state death penalties as being racially discriminatory in 1972. A new law was passed in 1973 to correct those problems. This law was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1975. A revised death-penalty law was passed in 1977. In 1980 John Wayne Gacy was sentenced to death for the murders of 33 men and boys. He was executed by lethal injection in 1994. Twelve people were executed in Illinois between 1977 and the 2000 moratorium on executions.

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St. Louis

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