Tell Quinn to end the death penalty

January 24, 2011

Ken Richardson looks at the struggle to abolish the death penalty in Illinois--and how activists got one signature away from making the death penalty a thing of the past.

ILLINOIS ACTIVISTS are gearing up to pressure Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to do the right thing--and sign a bill to end the death penalty.

On January 11, the Illinois state Senate voted to abolish the death penalty by a 32-25 vote. A few days earlier, the Illinois House backed the abolition legislation by a 60-54 margin. Now, the bill is on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk, awaiting his signature.

The fact that there is a bill to abolish the death penalty on Quinn's desk is not because of the morality of politicians, but because of the long struggle of prisoners, family members and activists, who have drawn attention to the systemic flaws of the death penalty system.

"I pray that Governor Quinn does the right thing and signs the bill that abolishes the death penalty," said Mark Clements, a former prisoner who was tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Clements spent 28 years of his life in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Burge, who was recently sentenced to four and a half years in prison for obstruction of justice, was the commander of a police unit that tortured dozens of African American men throughout the 1970s and '80s. Some of Burge's torture victims ended up on death row, while others spent as much as two decades incarcerated based on tortured confessions. Some 20 men who were tortured by Burge or his men remain incarcerated to this day.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (Chris Eaves)

The struggle to abolish the death penalty in Illinois and the fight against police torture in Chicago have been inextricably linked. The Death Row 10 were police torture victims who organized in prison to call attention police to Burge and his "night crew." The activism of death row prisoners, family members and activists played a central role in the decision by former Gov. George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in 2000, and commute the sentences of everyone on death row in Illinois in 2003.

THE HISTORY of the death penalty in Illinois is a history of racism, prosecutorial misconduct and police torture. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974, 12 men have been executed by the state, while 20 innocent men have been exonerated from death row. Illinois has not executed anyone in more than a decade, though a number of people have been sentenced to death row in that time.

The moratorium declared by George Ryan in 2000 fell short of abolition, but was a victory for the anti-death penalty movement. Because of the moratorium, no one has been executed for the past 10 years--but part of the logic of the moratorium was that the flaws in the death penalty in Illinois could be "fixed."

What you can do

Call Governor Quinn at 217-782-0244 (Springfield office) or 312-814-2121 (Chicago office) and ask him to sign the death penalty repeal bill. Or, visit the governor's Web site to e-mail him directly.

Go to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site for more information about getting involved in the fight against the death penalty in your state.

Since its enactment, Illinois politicians have claimed to be "for the death penalty and for the moratorium," while activists pushed forward to abolish executions.

The case of Darby Tillis--an exoneree who has since become an anti-death penalty activist--is evidence enough that the death penalty is too flawed to be fixed. According to Tillis' Web site:

On November 13, 1977, two white men were murdered during an armed robbery on Chicago's north side. There was no physical evidence to link Tillis to the crime (after refusing to lie for a $5,000 reward in exchange for the lives of two other men, he was charged with the crime).

The only evidence against Tillis was the testimony of Phyllis Santini, who went to the police with a story which implicated Darby Tillis and his codefendant. They both claimed their innocence after being arrested and convicted in this matter. Tillis spent 9 years in all three Illinois maximum security prisons. Their plight had them caught up in the system where they had three jury trials, two resulting in hung juries and the third in a death sentence. Darby Tillis and his codefendant were the only defendants in the history of the United States to be tried five times.

Tillis' case is not an anomaly. It is similar to other victims of Illinois death row, and shows the flaws of the death penalty.

Ronald Kitchen, who was tortured by Jon Burge, spent 13 of his 21 years in prison on death row. According to the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions:

Kitchen's conviction rested primarily on his confession, but also involved a jailhouse snitch, Willie Williams, who has admitted that he lied when he testified that both Kitchen and Reeves had confessed the crime to him. The tortured confession implicated Reeves in the murders, although he had nothing to do with them. Both convictions rested in part on the failure of Cook County prosecutors to provide defense attorneys with evidence of benefits provided to Willie Williams in return for his testimony.

These cases and many others are examples of the flaws of the death penalty, and proof that it cannot be fixed. Because of the activism of the anti-death penalty movement, the conversation of death penalty "reform" has now shifted to death penalty abolition.

It is not a forgone conclusion that Quinn will sign the bill abolishing the death penalty. He has stated in the past that he supports the death penalty. On January 20, Quinn said he would decide whether to sign the bill within 30 days.

Unfortunately, the bill as it is currently written, is not retroactive, so it would have no effect on the 15 inmates who are currently on death row. Technically, Quinn could decide to lift the current moratorium and execute the men on death row, even if he signs the death penalty abolition bill.

Quinn has invited constituents to call his office and voice their opinions on whether he should sign the bill. Anti-death penalty advocates believe that Quinn should not only sign the bill, but should be pressured to grant commutations of the sentences of all current death row inmates.

If Quinn signs the bill to abolish the death penalty in Illinois, it would be a major victory for the anti-death penalty movement.

Just one year ago, the death penalty seemed like a non-issue in Illinois, but activists pressured politicians to put abolishing the death penalty on the agenda. The anti-death penalty movement in Illinois is now just one step from abolishing the death penalty in the state--but activists realize that even if the death penalty is abolished, the criminal justice system is flawed, and torture victims like Stanley Howard and many others remain incarcerated.

Activists should pressure Governor Pat Quinn to sign the bill that abolishes the death penalty--and know that, if the death penalty is abolished, there are many more injustices embedded within the criminal justice system that should be addressed.

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