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updated: 12/30/2010 10:43 AM

Legislature could vote next week to abolish death penalty

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SPRINGFIELD -- More than 10 years after then-Gov. George Ryan halted the death penalty in Illinois for the time being, state lawmakers are preparing to debate whether capital punishment in the state should be abolished for good.

The controversial vote could come as early as next week. And because it's such a politically tricky issue, it likely won't be an easy one for death penalty abolitionists to win.

Supporters of abolishing capital punishment argue that it's not a deterrent to crime. And, they say, innocent people in Illinois have been sentenced to death -- the ultimate mistake the justice system can make.

On the other side, supporters of the death penalty argue it can deter crime, the most terrible crimes deserve the ultimate punishment, and reforms have helped prevent mistakes in prosecutions.

Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Association to Abolish the Death Penalty, said his group is talking to lawmakers about the issue in anticipation of a January vote. But, he said, many lawmakers have already made up their minds one way or another on the issue that's been around for years.

"We've been waiting for 10 years," he said.

A decade ago, Ryan put a hold on all pending executions in Illinois, citing in part the mistaken prosecution of Rolando Cruz in the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.

Then, before he left office, Ryan changed all Illinois inmates' death sentences to life in prison.

Since then, people have been sentenced to death in Illinois, but no one has been executed. If the legislation is approved, those existing death sentences would be changed to life without parole.

That would include the sentence for Anthony Mertz, who in 2003 was sentenced to death for the 2001 rape and murder of Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara. McNamara was a student at Eastern Illinois University.

Schroeder says lawmakers haven't seen the death penalty issue as a pressing one in recent years because Ryan's moratorium has been in place.

And Schroeder worries that lawmakers' focus might yet again be distracted from the issue in early January as they also potentially debate controversial taxes and budget legislation, as well as a massive gambling expansion package.

But some opponents of abolishing the death penalty could be focused.

State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said some of the worst murder cases still call for capital punishment.

"You have some heinous crimes that I believe deserve the ultimate penalty," said Reboletti, who is a former Will County prosecutor and is licensed to try death penalty cases.

Reboletti said the extensive training he went through to become qualified to try capital cases is evidence of reforms that have improved the death penalty prosecutions.

"I'm part of the reforms," he said.

A first vote on abolishing the death penalty could come in the state House as early as next week. If it's approved by the House and Senate, Gov. Pat Quinn would have the final say.

During this year's campaign, Quinn expressed support for using the death penalty in the most extreme cases.