By Mary Massingale Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – A measure to abolish the Illinois death penalty squeaked to House passage Thursday after falling one vote short earlier in the day.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where it will be considered when that chamber returns to the Capitol next week.
Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 3539 with the required 60 votes after waging an earlier emotional, hour-long debate. But it was the $20 million annual cost of death penalty cases that convinced state Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, to change his previous “no” vote to “yes.”
“I was on both sides of this issue. But then you think of the potential cost savings of this bill, and the state needs all of the savings we can get,” Verschoore said. “Besides, my wife was on me to vote for it.”
Even the House sponsor of the legislation cited the savings element, as the state grapples with a budget deficit approaching $15 billion that legislative leaders are attempting to close with loans and an increase in both the personal and corporate income taxes.
“Let’s instead put that money where it really matters,” said state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Broadview. “Let’s give law enforcement some training that they need to wage the fight against crime. Let’s give victims of these heinous crimes the support and services that they long deserve.”
The measure calls for the money in the state’s capital litigation trust fund, which covers partial costs of litigating death penalty cases, to be funneled to law enforcement and services for victim’s families.
But state Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, a former FBI agent, could not be swayed by that provision. He recalled that Brian Dugan confessed to the 1985 killing of 7-year-old Melissa Ackerman in exchange for avoiding the death penalty.
Dugan in 2009 was found guilty of the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico, and he is now on Death Row.
State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, however, said issues of life and death aren’t that cut and dried.
State Rep. Will Burns, D-Chicago, agreed, noting that the death penalty has often been biased in its implementation.
“If you’re an African-American who kills a white victim, you’re more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person who kills a black person,” Burns said. “That if you’re low-income, if you are uneducated, you’re more likely to be sentenced to death than someone who has more education and more money.”
Former Gov. George Ryan in 2000 halted all executions following media investigations that uncovered wrongly sentenced death row inmates, and instituted a moratorium on the death penalty while possible reforms were studied. Ryan in January 2003 then cleared out death row, commuting the sentences of all inmates. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Gov. Pat Quinn have upheld the moratorium.
Convicted felons continue to be sentenced to death row, which now houses 15 inmates.
The executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty celebrated Thursday’s House passage.
“It’s clear our lawmakers know what many Illinoisans see: the death penalty is broken beyond repair, and it must end now,” Jeremy Schroeder said in a written statement.