Death Penalty Abolished in Illinois

Volume IV Issue 1

On March 9, 2011, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn signed SB 3539, abolishing capital punishment in Illinois and commuting the sentences of all 15 people on death row to life in prison.  The abolition bill reallocates funds used for the implementation of the death penalty toward services for victims’ families and law enforcement.  Illinois now joins New Jersey and New Mexico, both of which abolished the death penalty during the last three years. 

Governor Quinn solicited input from a wide variety of death penalty supporters and opponents before deciding to sign the bill.  “I’ve heard from many, many people of good faith and good conscience on both sides of the issue.  And I’ve tried to be very meticulous and writing down notes and studying those notes and books and e-mails.  They’ve really spoken from the heart.  I’ve been very proud of the people of Illinois,” Governor Quinn said.  The governor consulted with prosecutors, victims’ families, death penalty opponents, and religious leaders.

History of the Death Penalty in Illinois

The last execution in Illinois was in 1999.  On January 31, 2000 Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois.  In reviewing several death penalty cases since 1977, he determined that 13 prisoners sentenced to death had later been cleared of murder charges, compared with 12 who had been executed.  Some of the 13 prisoners were exonerated by DNA evidence; the cases against others collapsed after new trials were ordered by appellate courts.  Ultimately, in 2003, Governor Ryan commuted all 164 death sentences to life imprisonment.

A Commission on Capital Punishment appointed by Governor Ryan scrutinized the cases of the thirteen defendants who had been released from death row, studied all reported capital decisions in Illinois, consulted with nationally recognized experts in fields related to capital punishment, and commissioned and conducted studies of its own.  The Commission also considered recommendations from across the country made by a number of groups also formed to consider potential capital punishment reforms.

The Commission produced a report in 2002 that concluded that reform of the capital punishment system was required in order to enhance the level of scrutiny at all stages of the proceedings in capital cases.  If capital punishment were to continue to be imposed in Illinois, a higher level of confidence in outcomes would require a significant increase in public funding at virtually every stage, ranging from investigation through trial and its aftermath.

The Cost of Death

The financial cost of maintaining the death penalty was a significant consideration in lawmakers’ decision to approve SB 3539, which was passed on January 11, 2011, and Governor Quinn’s subsequent decision to sign it.  Capital cases are more expensive because they involve two full trials: one for determining innocence or guilt and another for sentencing.   They also require additional lawyers, costly expert witnesses, and are more likely to lead to multiple appeals. Many legislators cited the $20 million annual cost of death penalty cases as the deciding factor in voting for abolition. 

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty.  Abolition bills have been introduced this year in Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, and Washington.


“Our legislature and our governor are to be commended on this historic occasion.  Their collective leadership in dealing with this most difficult subject is truly inspirational.  On behalf of all those lawyers who have dedicated themselves over the years to representation of Illinois defendants in capital cases, let me just say thank you with all of our hearts.”

-John H. Mathias, Jr.

Volunteer death penalty attorney and Chair of the Death Penalty Representation Project Steering Committee

Project Volunteer Firms in Illinois

Baker & McKenzie LLP
DLA Piper LLP
Jenner & Block LLP
Kelley Drye & Warren LLP
Marshall Gerstein & Borun LLP
Mayer Brown LLP
McGuire Woods LLP
Schiff Hardin LLP
Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, Ltd.
Sidley Austin LLP
Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP
Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP

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