DuPage leaders revive death penalty debate
Three DuPage County Republicans called Tuesday for Gov. Rod Blagojevich to lift Illinois' moratorium on executions.
They did so, though, on the heels of a study that chronicles the high cost of death penalty cases. The group behind the study is lobbying legislators to abolish capital punishment.
Both sides agree, though, movement on the controversial issue will be slow -- especially in an election year.
Illinois' 13 condemned inmates are several years away from exhausting appeal rights, but the Republicans urged Blagojevich to send a message to juries that the death penalty still is the law.
DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett noted that changes were made to improve the system since the moratorium was imposed eight years ago. State reps. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst and Randy Ramey of Carol Stream joined him at a morning news conference.
"The bottom line is the reforms are in place and are working," said Birkett, president of the Illinois State's Attorneys Association. "Everyone has done their job."
The group introduced other measures, such as making it a capital crime to kill a child 16 or younger; the current law is age 12. Birkett also wants to reduce the number of factors, from 21 to 9, that make a crime eligible for death.
Others have joined the debate as well. Anita Alvarez, the Democratic nominee for Cook County state's attorney, called for a statewide advisory referendum on the death penalty.
The last man executed in Illinois was Andrew Kokoraleis, in May 1999, for nearly 20 cult-like mutilation slayings of women in Cook and DuPage counties in the 1980s.
In Illinois, 18 condemned inmates were exonerated early this decade after reinstatement of capital punishment in 1974. Former Gov. George Ryan cited some of those cases as an example of a broken system when he declared the moratorium on executions. And later, on Dec. 19, 2002, he commuted death sentences to life terms.
An unofficial moratorium remains in place today, but judges and juries still hand out death sentences.
On the other side of the debate, death penalty opponents are lobbying just as hard for abolition. They favor expanding mandatory life-without-parole sentences and using some of the death penalty funds for counseling services for crime victims.
The Abolition in Illinois Movement released a study that suggests Illinois spent $148 million on death penalty cases since a special fund was set up eight years ago. Members say that figure does not include the cost of incarceration, appeals, some salaries and execution expenses.
"We agree the moratorium is not good for prosecutors," said Elliot Slosar of the abolition group. "We sympathize with the legal limbo it has placed them in, and, while we concur that the moratorium needs to end, bringing executions back is not the solution. Abolition is."
The debate has stirred many changes. For example, police must videotape interrogations with murder suspects and a judge must determine the reliability of jailhouse informants before they are allowed to testify.
Lawmakers also gave the Illinois Supreme Court greater power to toss out unjust verdicts, offered defendants more access to evidence and barred execution in cases that hinge on one witness.
And defendants in capital cases also must be represented by at least two lawyers. The lead lawyer must be qualified by a special review board. And a state fund, cited in the anti-death penalty cost study, was established to ensure poor defendants can afford a fair trial.
Other reforms include requiring police to preserve evidence longer in major cases and to hand over all their notes in homicide probes to prosecutors, who in turn must share them with the defense before trial. Birkett also helped expand convicted defendants' access to DNA testing on appeal if it wasn't available at trial.
Slosar, though, argues that's not good enough. He said only 35 of a recommended 85 reforms are in place and cites examples in his study in which some reforms, such as the state fund, have been abused.
Of Illinois' condemned, 31-year-old Anthony Mertz would be the first to face execution, but not for another decade. He was convicted of killing Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara, 21,
while at Eastern Illinois University in 2001.
"We need the governor to make a decision as to where he is on this," Reboletti said. "We can't wait until these other appeals come through and then some other General Assembly will have to deal with it."
A message left at the governor's office was not returned Tuesday.
Illinois' Death Row
• Rodney Adkins, 44, for the 2003 murder of an Oak Park woman who walked in on him as he burglarized her condo.
• Teodoro Baez, 31, for a 1999 double murder in which the victims were dismembered with a samurai sword after a drug dispute near Chicago.
• Dion Banks, 45, for the 2001 shooting death of a woman in front of her two young sons during a carjacking in the Ford City Mall parking lot.
• Joseph Bannister, 39, for wounding his ex-girlfriend and killing her sister during a 2000 attack in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.
• Ricardo Harris, 43, for the 1999 murder of two Oak Lawn liquor store clerks during an attempted burglary, in which two customers also were injured.
• Laurence Lovejoy, 41, for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Erin Justice, in 2004 in Aurora.
• Anthony Mertz, 31, for the 2001 murder of Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara, 21, in her off-campus apartment at Eastern Illinois University.
• Brian Nelson, 25, for killing his former girlfriend, her brother, her father and her father's girlfriend outside Peotone in 2002.
• Daniel Ramsey, 29, for the July 1996 shooting deaths of two girls, ages 16 and 12, and wounding his former girlfriend and three toddlers in Hancock County.
• Paul Runge, 37, for the rapes and murders of a woman and her 10-year-old daughter in their Chicago apartment in 1997.
• Cecil Sutherland, 52, for the 1987 abduction, rape and murder of 10-year-old Amy Schulz, of Kell, Ill., in Jefferson County.
• Curtis Thompson, 65, for the 2002 shooting deaths of three people, including a sheriff's deputy, in rural Stark County.
• Andrew Urdiales, 43, for the 1996 murder of a 21-year-old Hammond woman in Livingston County.
Source: Daily Herald archives; state prison records