Gov. Pat Quinn made history as quietly as possible Wednesday. In a private meeting with a small group of supporters, he signed into law a bill that abolished the death penalty in Illinois. He also commuted the sentences of the state's 15 death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
It was "the most difficult decision I have made as governor," Quinn told reporters. We believe that, and we warmly commend him for that decision.We understand why Quinn chose to avoid the fanfare that often accompanies the signing of major legislation. But this is a big moment, worthy of significant, if sober, celebration. 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. No government can sanction an instrument of justice that takes such risks with the lives of innocent people.
Many people, some of them the surviving relatives of murder victims, are profoundly disappointed. Law enforcement officials have lost a powerful weapon that was wielded, far more often than not, in good faith. But this was the right call.
The political fallout will be considerable. A majority of Illinois voters still support capital punishment, though the numbers are declining. Last October, a Paul Simon Institute poll found that 56 percent of Illinois voters thought the state's 10-year-old moratorium on executions should be lifted. That was despite the well-documented failures of the system, and despite the fact that the reforms recommended by a pair of blue-ribbon commissions had been stalled in the legislature for years.
Quinn's critics will point to the 15 murderers he has let off death row.
One of those inmates is Brian Dugan, who confessed to killing 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville in 1983. We've talked to more than one person who said they supported banning the death penalty but wouldn't mind if Dugan was executed first. That sums up the mixed feelings many people shared as Quinn mulled his decision.
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that two innocent men -- Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez -- spent years on death row after being wrongly convicted of Nicarico's murder. That's a powerful rebuttal to prosecutors' argument that banning the death penalty robs them of the only appropriate punishment for the worst crimes. Justice isn't served if the wrong person pays, especially with his or her life.
It's also a good time to remind ourselves that, through all the twists and turns in that case, Brian Dugan remains alive 28 years after that terrible murder. If Quinn had vetoed this repeal, Dugan would still live many more years before he met the executioner--if he ever did. The death penalty has hardly been swift and sure punishment.
Some lawmakers already are working on legislation to reinstate the death penalty. One bill would make the death penalty applicable under limited circumstances -- if the victim was a child or a police officer, for example, or if there were multiple victims.
Another would set up a panel to decide whether the death penalty could be pursued in any given case. That's meant to address the 2002 finding of the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment that the death penalty is most often pursued when the defendant is poor or a minority or when the victim is white.
Those measures would not come close to addressing the shortcomings that led to Wednesday's historic change.
Illinois will no longer risk executing an innocent person. Illinois is better off without the death penalty.