As Gov. Pat Quinn continues to mull over his decision to sign legislation abolishing the death penalty, the conversation about what to with the 15 men currently sitting on death row in Illinois is heating up, too.
Even if he decides to end capital punishment outright, the legal status of those inmates would not change. That's why the governor is asking citizens to contact his office and give their opinions about the best course of action. Yesterday, one such citizen, the state's senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, said he has changed his mind about the death sentence and now believes that it should be off the books in all 50 states. (He still thinks it should be an option for federal courts dealing with "national crimes involving terrorism, treason, which endanger the lives of many Americans.")
It has been 10 years since former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state and eight years since he commuted the sentence of 156 inmates on death row. Since 1977, 20 people sentenced to death in Illinois have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.
When New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007, then-Gov. John Corzine also commuted the sentence of the eight people on death row. In Illinois, that means the sentences for those on death row would turn into life without parole. It is something Quinn would be wise to do as well. As the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times put it: "We don’t want to learn too late that one of the cases now working through the system or one of the men now on Death Row doesn’t belong there."