The Death Penalty Was Abolished in Illinois Years Ago. Now the Governor Wants It Back.
By Kim Geiger, Monique Garcia and Dan Hinkel
Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday proposed reinstating the death penalty in Illinois for mass killers and people who slay law enforcement officers, injecting the idea into his re-election campaign by rewriting a gun control bill and sending it back to lawmakers.
Death penalty objectors and the governor's political opponents including Senate President John Cullerton immediately accused Rauner of using capital punishment as a "political tool" to help his re-election. And it faces long odds in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, which banned capital punishment outright earlier this decade.
The Republican governor needs to cobble together support from conservatives and moderates ahead of the November election. Democrats have sent him a few gun-related measures in recent months, including one to license firearm stores that he vetoed shortly before the March primary election.
"I don't believe that this is anything other than very good policy, widely supported by the people of Illinois and I think by elected representatives, and I think it's the right thing to do to pass this," Rauner said Monday.
The governor was facing a deadline to act on a proposal to create a 72-hour "cooling-off" period to buy an assault weapon. Under current law, the waiting period to purchase military-style weapons including AR-15s is 24 hours. It's 72 hours to buy a handgun. Rauner said he believes the 72-hour rule should apply to all gun purchases and that "if someone is potentially a dangerous person and they have violent acts in mind, that extra two days could make the difference between life and death."
Instead of signing or vetoing that bill, Rauner used his amendatory veto powers to add proposals, including the death penalty provision and a ban on bump stocks. His rewrite shows favor both to gun control measures pushed by liberals and moderates, and tough-on-crime policies sought by conservatives. But none of it can become law without a fresh round of votes by the lawmakers.
Rauner wants to create a category of homicide called "death penalty murder," which could apply to adults who kill police officers or more than one person. Guilt must be determined "beyond all doubt," rather than the standard "reasonable doubt" requirement, according to his veto message. Rauner said at a Chicago news conference Monday that people in those cases "deserve to have their life taken."
Rauner said he also wants a "complete ban" on the sale and possession of bump stocks and trigger cranks, devices designed to make guns fire more rapidly. He wants courts to have the ability to remove guns from people who are deemed dangerous, and for judges and prosecutors to be required to explain decisions on plea agreements that result in the release of habitual gun offenders. And he wants local communities to redirect sales tax money to fund the hiring of mental health workers for schools.
Lawmakers can either accept his changes or override Rauner, putting just the 72-hour waiting period in place. If they do neither, the bill dies. A spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said the governor's changes were under review and that it would be up to the sponsor of the bill to decide how to proceed. Cullerton was more direct.
"The death penalty should never be used as a political tool to advance one's agenda. Doing so is in large part why we had so many problems and overturned convictions. That's why we had bipartisan support to abolish capital punishment," Cullerton said.
And the bill's sponsor didn't appear likely to accept the governor's changes.
"He hijacked my bill and put politics ahead of policy," Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Carroll of Northbrook said. He said he had not been consulted about the governor's proposed changes and was still reviewing them.
"I think that it was very telling that there was not one Democrat there," Carroll said of the news conference, which was held at an Illinois State Police facility in Chicago. "It would have been nice if, as the original sponsor, if I would have been invited to have conversations about this bill or even to the press conference today to talk about this bill."
The death penalty provision could become part of election-year campaigning as Rauner seeks to court conservatives who abandoned him during the primary and held him to a narrow victory over state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton. The governor's campaign sent out a news release shortly after he made his announcement, and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker criticized him at an appearance in Springfield.
"Why is he doing it out of the blue?" Pritzker said of the proposal. "It's because it's all politics to him. It isn't about policy. He's trading policy to do politics in the election."
The idea has the support of many conservative lawmakers and the law enforcement community.
"I think if you kill a police officer, I think, and you're found guilty, I think that's absolutely an appropriate remedy for something like that," said Chicago police First Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio, the second in command at CPD. "Look, we get murders all the time and every murder is important. But there's something particularly heinous about killing a policeman or shooting at a policeman, the people who are out there to protect all of us, basically."
Asked Monday why police officers had been singled out and the proposal didn't include other public servants like firefighters and teachers, Rauner said he was "very open to considering protections like this for additional victims."
The death penalty has historically been controversial in Illinois, and its end was an incremental process that came over the course of a decade.
In 2000, Republican Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois, citing a spate of cases in which death row inmates were exonerated and saying the justice system was too plagued by error to be certain that the state would not kill an innocent person. Three years later, Ryan -- who later went to federal prison after his corruption case -- commuted the sentences of all death row inmates to prison terms.
Then in 2011, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty.
Responding to Rauner's announcement Monday, Chicago attorney Thomas Sullivan -- who co-chaired Ryan's commission on capital punishment -- called the proposal a "lousy idea." The death penalty, he said, is expensive and time-consuming, and does not deter crime.
"It doesn't reduce crime, as you can see from the statistics," he said. "We're better off without it."
And the Catholic Conference of Illinois said it was "distressed and alarmed" by the idea and said the idea of raising the burden of proof for such punishments was "simply parsing words."
"You cannot teach killing is wrong by killing," the group said. "We are all God's children, and our first -- and primary -- right to life must always be protected and unconditional."
Former Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine believes the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases, but he said it would be "troublesome" to use the "beyond all doubt" standard, rather than the more common "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.
"It strikes me as more campaign rhetoric than anything else," he said.
If Illinois were to return to executing people, the state would be cutting against the national trend. Executions in the U.S. rose to a peak of 98 in 1999 but have dropped steadily since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which has criticized the way the death penalty is implemented. There were 23 executions nationwide last year, and states have struggled to secure the drugs used for lethal injections. Thirty-one states and the federal government allow for the death penalty.
Illinois executed 12 people, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, between 1990 and 1999. The last person executed in Illinois was Andrew Kokoraleis, who was executed by injection in 1999 for murdering and dismembering a 21-year-old woman from Elmhurst.
Democrats will attempt on Tuesday to steer the gun-violence discussion back toward gun control by unveiling a revamped version of a new state licensing system for gun shops. Rauner vetoed an earlier version of that legislation in March.
Monique Garcia reported from Springfield. Chicago Tribune's Jeremy Gorner and Rick Pearson in Chicago, and Bill Lukitsch in Springfield contributed.
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