Death penalty sparks crossfire

Legislators appear resistant, dubious on impact of Rauner veto

 (Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

By Mark Guarino

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to return the death penalty to Illinois sparked a vigorous debate in Springfield this week as lawmakers questioned whether or not the plan was feasible or if it is just politically motivated as the governor’s re-election campaign inches closer to November.

The proposal is part of a wider package Rauner wants to attach to House Bill 1468, which is calling for a mandatory “cooling period” of 72 hours following an assault-weapon purchase. Rauner vetoed the bill but wants to amend it with a wider public-safety package that also calls for a ban on bump stocks and extending more state aid for mental health services. Under his proposal, the death penalty would apply in cases only involving the killing of law enforcement or mass shootings.

At a hearing earlier this week before the House Judiciary-Criminal Committee, Democratic lawmakers blasted Rauner’s proposal as not just unnecessary, but poorly introduced.

“This is slapdash and haphazard and pathetically constructed beyond all recognition. If you do support the death penalty, this isn’t the way to do it,” said state Rep. Christian Mitchell of Chicago. State Rep. Kathleen Willis of Addison described it as a “poison pill.”

Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011 following a long period of wrongful convictions. Before then, Gov. George Ryan issued what turned out to be an 11-year moratorium and commuted the sentences of more than 100 death-row inmates to life in prison. 

The hearing also gave lawmakers an opportunity to question the governor’s motives, namely why he didn’t sign the original bill that happens to be aligned with his concern for public safety.

“You’re telling me that a waiting period will save lives,” said state Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago. "And yet, it’s the position of the governor that a waiting period, a life-saving measure, ought to be made contingent on the governor’s other political commitments. That to me is an appalling position."

Representing Rauner was David Risley, his public-safety policy chief. He said in his testimony that the new death-penalty legislation would not represent “a return of the old statute,” but would be “narrowly crafted” to apply to cases where guilt was “beyond all doubt.” He name-checked mass killers John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, and Saddam Hussein as examples where the new standard would be met.

Risley characterized Rauner as proactive in finding a way to end gun violence.

“Instead of sitting back and being like a punching bag for critics, he wanted to lay on the table what he was for, affirmatively, instead of just playing defense, and so this was the manner in which he chose to do so,” Risley said.

The hearing included testimony from Illinois State Police Director Leo Schmitz, who said law enforcement supports reinstating the death penalty because it acts as a deterrent against violence against police. “Anything that we can do to help stop that, whether it’s this bill or some other bills, it’s something that we should work on and strive for,” he said. Groups including the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois argued against the deterrence defense.

Opposition testimony also came from journalist Rob Warden, the former executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions: Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University’s law school. He warned that even a limited death penalty would make it vulnerable to future expansion. Between 1977 and 2011, Illinois expanded the legal determinants for the death penalty from six to 20.

There is also shrinking support for capital punishment nationwide. The majority of states have either eliminated the death penalty or had some kind of moratorium. “Restoring the death penalty in Illinois would put us squarely on the wrong side of history,” he said.

It is not yet known when the committee will vote on Rauner’s proposals.