Come Out Against the Death Penalty

[This editorial was first published in Windy City Times on January 26, 2011]

This past month, both houses of the Illinois General Assembly passed bill SB 3539, which would repeal the death penalty in Illinois.  The bill is now awaiting Governor Quinn’s signature.  If he signs the bill, the State of Illinois will become the 16th state to repeal the death penalty in the United States the third to do so in the past three years, and would take its place alongside 95 countries that have abolished the death penalty.

Governor Quinn has not decided whether he will sign the legislation, and has indicated that he wants to hear from the people of Illinois before making his final decision.  Here are the reasons you should make that call urging him to sign the bill.

In addition to repealing the death penalty, the bill would redirect its necessary funding toward services for murder victims’ family members and for law enforcement.  The funds currently spent on the death penalty are quite significant, particularly in light of the crushing budget crisis we are facing in Illinois.  According to the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ICADP), over $100 million taxpayer were spent on the death penalty in 2003 alone. It is well known that implementation of the death penalty is far most costly than imprisonment. 

The passage of this legislation is the culmination of a mammoth effort led by the ICADP.  It follows decades of litigation, investigative journalism and organizing that have uncovered mountains of evidence demonstrating that the death penalty is fatally flawed and beyond repair. 

Since Illinois re-instated the death penalty in 1974, studies have been conducted and reforms have been enacted in an attempt to make the system more “just.”  Despite numerous measures, we continue to witness the system fail, time and time again.  In Illinois alone, 20 innocent people have been sentenced to death. Moreover, profound racial disparities persist. A disproportionate number of African American men are sentenced to death.  Of the 15 men currently on Illinois’ death row, a third are Black, though African Americans represent only 15% of the general population of Illinois. In 2009, over 92% of defendants against whom Cook County prosecutors sought a death sentence were people of color; 78% were Black, 14% were Latino, and three were immigrants from the Middle East.

The first significant attempt to fix the system started back in January of 2000, shortly after Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on executions after Anthony Porter, who came within 48 hours of being put to death, was found to be innocent.  Ryan was struck by the fact that Illinois had executed only twelve death row inmates during the same period in which it exonerated thirteen.  We, as a State, were getting it wrong more than half of the time.

Following his declaration of the moratorium, Governor Ryan established a nonpartisan Commission on Capital Punishment charged with reviewing the administration of the death penalty.  In April 2002, the Commission issued a report highly critical of the system, making 86 recommendations for reform, the vast majority of which the legislature failed to enact.  Following a mass campaign for clemency for all individuals then on death row, in January of 2003 Ryan commuted all existing death sentences, finding the system was “deeply flawed,” “arbitrary,” and “haunted by the demon of error.”  He also pardoned four African American men who had been tortured into giving false confessions by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.  Burge was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for attempting to cover up his crimes of torture.  Subsequently, between 2003 and 2009, an additional three men were exonerated off death row, bringing the total in Illinois to 20. Of those exonerated, 14 were Black and two were Latino.

After Ryan left office, the General Assembly finally decided to adopt many of the reforms recommended by Ryan’s Capital Commission and passed a widely heralded death penalty reform package signed into law in November 2003.   Despite the enactment of these reforms, two prosecutors have since sought the death sentence against two more innocent men.  Were it not for DNA evidence, they too would have wound up on Illinois’ notorious death row. 

In the past 10 years, we have had more than enough time to “fix” the death penalty, and must now come to the incontrovertible conclusion that it is too flawed to fix.

It is time for Governor Quinn to hear LGBTQ voices in support of the legislation to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.

Many in the LGBTQ community supported the 2002 clemency campaign.  Among them, Queer to the Left (Q2L) launched a campaign calling LGBTQ folks to “Come Out Against the Death Penalty and In Support of Justice.” In the course of the campaign, Q2L highlighted the State’s deployment of homophobia, sexism and racism to secure Bernina Mata’s conviction and death sentence in 1999. 

Mata, a Latina lesbian, was accused of killing a white heterosexual man she met in a bar.  According to the prosecutors, Mata killed the man after he made an unwanted pass at her.  In seeking her conviction and asking to impose a sentence of death, playing on sexual, gender and racial stereotypes, the prosecutor argued Mata was “a hard core lesbian” and that “A normal heterosexual woman would not be so offended by such conduct as to murder.”

Fortunately, thanks in part to LGBTQ support of the clemency campaign, Mata’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, as it was for all on death row.  It is time once again for LGBTQ people to lend their voices and come out against the death penalty.  

Please call Governor Quinn today and urge him to sign the death penalty repeal act:

Chicago Office: 312-814-2121

Springfield Office: 217-782-0244

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