Illinois' Death Row finally died Friday.
After years of stories of men sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit and families of murder victims angrily demanding their loved ones' killers pay with their own lives, the end of the death penalty ended quietly Friday when the bill banning executions took effect.
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That bill was signed with much fanfare in March by Gov. Pat Quinn, who subsequently commuted the sentences of the 15 men on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Fourteen of those prisoners have been placed in maximum security prisons around the state, while one was placed in a medium-high security prison with a mental health facility.
Ironically, the state's death row at the prison in Pontiac has been turned into a place where inmates go once they are deemed worthy of leaving the state's super maximum prison and enter a less-restrictive prison program, a corrections department official said.
"It is a step down from Tamms (the super-maximum prison in Southern Illinois) and when they transition out t is a restrictive environment, but not as restrictive as Tamms," said Stacey Solano, spokeswoman for the state's department of corrections.
As for the death chamber itself, last used in 1999, Solano said no decision has been made about what, if anything, will be done with it.
Because the fate of executions in the state was sealed in March when Quinn signed the bill abolishing it, Friday's ultimate end to the death penalty was barely noted around the state. Solano said the department has received just two calls for information from the media on Friday.
That lack of interest stands in contrast to the last dozen years or so when Illinois was at the very center of the national and international debate over the death penalty. Even before the day then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in 2000 to the day in 2003 when he commuted to life in prison the death sentences of more than 160 inmates, the spotlight on capital punishment has shined brightest on Illinois.
In Illinois, where 12 men were executed between 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated and the year before Ryan's 2000 moratorium, the issue never went away. Even as lawmakers debated the death penalty and the moratorium Ryan imposed remained in place, prosecutors continued to seek the death penalty. By the time Quinn signed the bill in March, there were 15 men on death row.
Among them was Brian Dugan, who was convicted in 2009 in the 1983 slaying of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico -- years after two men were sentenced to death for the same slaying before they were ultimately exonerated and released from prison.
His attorney, Steven Greenberg, said Friday that shutting down death row was proper given that people were convicted and sentenced to death for that crime and others they did not commit was the proper thing to do.
"Anytime you've got a system where there is a danger of providing retribution on the wrong person, that's no different than vigilante justice, which is what we had," he said.
Greenberg said that some jurors with their decisions not to recommend the death penalty in other cases in recent years were already sending a message that they remain concerned about the possibility of executing an innocent person.
But Former Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine, a proponent of the death penalty and a vocal critic of Ryan's decision to clear death row, pointed out that among those who benefit from the ban is a man who raped a mother and daughter in front of one another before stabbing them to death.
"I believe there are some people who do such terrible things that they forfeit their right to be among us," he said.
Devine also said he doesn't believe the death penalty is necessarily gone forever in Illinois, and that the debate will begin anew when there is a particularly horrific crime.
"I suspect when the next John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh.... happens there will be some discussion of bringing it back," he said. "Nothing is carved in stone."
Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated, the last one in 1999.