Illinois death penalty ban debated

  • Shannon E. McNamara

    Shannon E. McNamara

  • Jeanine Nicarico

    Jeanine Nicarico

  • Gary Gauger

    Gary Gauger

  • Anthony Mertz

    Anthony Mertz

Updated 1/8/2011 6:05 PM

Cindy McNamara hears the arguments opponents of the death penalty make -- be it statistics showing capital punishment doesn't serve as a deterrent, or the fact 20 people in Illinois have been declared wrongly condemned to death and released.

But all the data in the world won't convince the Rolling Meadows wife and mother that her daughter Shannon's killer isn't an evil coward who deserves to die.


And McNamara won't be swayed into believing Anthony Mertz, first in line to be executed after former Gov. George Ryan's blanket clemency cleared 167 inmates out of death row, will suffer a worse fate if his sentence is commuted to life in prison.

In 2001, Mertz broke into Shannon's apartment during her senior year at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, strangling and mutilating the Rolling Meadows High School graduate and aspiring teacher.

Mertz could be spared from death if the Illinois Senate follows the House's vote to ban capital punishment and the governor signs the bill into law. The Senate could vote as soon as Monday.

"Having the death penalty is not about revenge for me, because I know I'll see Shannon one day and I know God is watching over her and that she's happy," McNamara said. "We need this on the books because Mertz is evil through and through, and having one less evil person on this earth is what's best for society."

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

The McNamaras are among some victims' families coping with the reality that the kind of justice they most desire for their murdered loved ones may not happen.

The parents and sisters of murdered 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico applauded a jury's decision sentencing convicted killer Brian Dugan to death in late 2009. Dugan abducted, raped and fatally bludgeoned the bubbly fifth-grader from Naperville in 1983, then went on to commit two more sex slayings as well as several other attacks.

"The news of the vote is more than disappointing," parents Pat and Tom Nicarico wrote in a statement from their South Carolina home. "(It) feels like our almost twenty-eight year odyssey seeking justice for Jeanine's murder has been overturned."

Among those supporting the House's 60-54 vote to abolish capital punishment is Gary Gauger, who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for his parents' 1993 murder at their McHenry County farm.


Gauger spent 3 years in prison before he was released and pardoned after the slayings were pinned on two members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang.

He believes the media, along with politicians, prosecutors and judges wanting to appear tough on crime, play too big a role in who is chosen to live or die. It's only a matter of time before developed societies ban the death penalty "due to the evolution of our humanity," he said.

"I think the death penalty is about getting emotional satisfaction for a small group of people," Gauger said. "And the state has spent $100 million on a capital litigation fund that could be spent in other ways. Believe me, prison is a very strong punishment."

Cindy McNamara, who's disappointed she never got notice that a vote on the death penalty may come up in the House, last week wrote an impassioned plea to Gov. Quinn appealing to him not as the governor, but as a parent.

She urged Quinn to read the victim impact statement she made during Mertz's sentencing hearing in order to get a brief glimpse into Shannon's all-too-brief 21 years. In it, she described her daughter coming home from college, not bothering to drop her laundry load and book bag before they embraced.

"At times the thought of life without her is more than I feel I can bear," McNamara said in court. "At times it even hurts to breathe."

Despite the death penalty's controversial history, McNamara strongly believes each case should be considered individually.

Even though Mertz has never confessed to killing Shannon, there was overwhelming evidence in the case: his DNA was found under her fingertips, his credit card was left at the crime scene and cellmates testified Mertz spoke openly about killing Shannon. Investigators have tried to link him to the 1999 murder of Charleston's Amy Warner.

"I agree that there's nothing worse than being in prison when you're innocent, but he's (Mertz) the poster boy for the death penalty," McNamara said. "He has no soul, and there's never been any doubt about his guilt."

The Nicaricos are joining the McNamaras in calling on the Senate and Gov. Quinn not to follow the House's vote, saying it's not an act of prudence and caring, but rather cowardice, laziness and a disregard for justice.

"It is lazy because it eliminates the necessity to further evaluate the latest legal reforms and makes moot the need for further research into the matter; it's the easy way out of a burdensome predicament," the Nicaricos wrote. "If the system is broken, fix it -- don't destroy it."