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updated: 3/10/2011 6:40 AM

Quinn abolishes death penalty

Quinn signs legislation, to mixed reaction from suburbs

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  • Gov. Pat Quinn signed a death penalty ban into law Wednesday. "It is impossible to create a perfect system, one that is free of all mistakes," Quinn said.

    Gov. Pat Quinn signed a death penalty ban into law Wednesday. "It is impossible to create a perfect system, one that is free of all mistakes," Quinn said.
    AP file photo

  • Cindy McNamara, mother of slain college student and Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara, had sent Quinn a letter strongly urging him to veto the legislation, saying the ultimate punishment is needed for the most heinous crimes.

    Cindy McNamara, mother of slain college student and Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara, had sent Quinn a letter strongly urging him to veto the legislation, saying the ultimate punishment is needed for the most heinous crimes.

  • This picture of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, age 10, was taken on Feb. 23, 1982, just two days before her murder. Her father, Tom, said he thought the governor's decision seemed heartfelt, "but I didn't get a crack at his heart."

    This picture of Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville, age 10, was taken on Feb. 23, 1982, just two days before her murder. Her father, Tom, said he thought the governor's decision seemed heartfelt, "but I didn't get a crack at his heart."

  • Brian J. Dugan's sentence now will be life without parole for killing Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.

    Brian J. Dugan's sentence now will be life without parole for killing Jeanine Nicarico of Naperville.

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- Tom Nicarico, whose 10-year-old daughter Jeanine was raped and murdered after being abducted from their Naperville home, watched Gov. Pat Quinn online Wednesday as he told reporters about his decision to abolish the death penalty.

Quinn's decision means that Brian Dugan, who was convicted of Jeanine's 1983 murder, will spend the rest of his life in prison instead of facing the ultimate punishment.

Nicarico, who now lives in South Carolina, said he sent e-mails and called Quinn's office to urge him to leave the death penalty in place, but he got no response, despite Quinn's public call for input.

Watching Quinn speak, Nicarico said he thought the governor's decision seemed heartfelt.

"But I didn't get a crack at his heart," Nicarico said Wednesday afternoon.

Quinn's action abolished the death penalty in Illinois and reduced the sentences of the 15 men on death row to life in prison without parole -- drawing sharp criticism from prosecutors, some lawmakers and relatives of victims, but praise from people who felt the system was flawed and unfair.

"I have no regrets," Quinn said, adding that Illinois almost made the ultimate mistake in several cases where innocent men were set to be executed.

Quinn's signature puts historic punctuation on a debate that has raged in Illinois for decades, often fueled by cases from the suburbs.

In fact, the last person executed in Illinois -- maybe the last ever -- was Andrew Kokoraleis, who was put to death in March 1999. He and others killed up to 21 women in Cook and DuPage counties in the 1980s.

But Quinn said the possibility that a flawed judicial system could lead to an innocent person being put to death was a big factor in his decision.

"It is impossible to create a perfect system, one that is free of all mistakes," Quinn said.

That's exactly how McHenry County resident Gary Gauger feels. He was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of his parents.

Later, he was let go, after the crime was instead attributed to a motorcycle gang. Gauger said he sent a letter to Quinn asking him to abolish the death penalty. He argued that no amount of reforms could make the system perfect.

"They still can't guarantee you won't execute an innocent person," Gauger said.

But Quinn's move comes to the dismay of some other suburban families who have been affected personally by violent crimes.

Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara was killed in 2001 while she was a student at Eastern Illinois University. Her mother, Cindy, sent Quinn a letter strongly urging him to veto the legislation, saying the ultimate punishment is needed for the most heinous crimes.

"I am compelled now to appeal to you, not as governor, but as a parent," her mother wrote in a letter to Quinn. "Would you please try to imagine for a moment what it would be like to hear the news?"

Anthony Mertz was convicted of killing Shannon McNamara and sentenced to death, but will now spend the rest of his life in prison.

Quinn addressed victims' families today, saying there are other means of punishing violent criminals.

"I understand your pain," he said. "I know there is no way to erase the pain."

Quinn took heat from Republicans who criticized him for saying during his campaign that he favored the death penalty in particularly heinous cases.

Sen. Dan Duffy, a Lake Barrington Republican, thought the opposite. Duffy voted for abolishing the death penalty after previously being a supporter of capital punishment.

"I'm glad to see he's also evolved in his position," Duffy said.

The governor and lawmakers were lobbied by people who were exonerated after being accused of, or even convicted of, murder, like Gauger.

They also include Jerry Hobbs, who was exonerated last year after being accused of killing his daughter and her friend in Zion in 2005. The case could have been eligible for the death penalty, but Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial before being released when DNA evidence cleared him.

But Quinn's decision drew immediate and harsh rebuke from suburban prosecutors.

"Today is a victory for murderers across Illinois," DuPage County State's Attorney Bob Berlin said. "Violent offenders can now murder police officers, kill victims during forcible felonies, kill multiple victims, and kill witnesses without fear of receiving the death penalty."

Quinn's signature on the legislation doesn't directly address the 15 people on death row, but he commuted their sentences in a separate action.

Despite the apparent finality of Quinn's decision, some suburban Republican lawmakers plan to fight back.

Republican Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst wants a statewide referendum on whether Illinois should have the death penalty. And Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, wants to reinstate capital punishment with strict limits on what crimes the sentence could be used for.

"While all life is precious, the worst of the worst go to the heart of the order of our society," Dillard said.

Asked if he'd rule out attempts to reinstate capital punishment, Quinn was brief.

"Yes," he said.