Executions are history in Illinois

March 14, 2011

Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, looks back at the long struggle to make Illinois the 16th state without the death penalty.

ON MARCH 9, Gov. Pat Quinn made the death penalty history in Illinois by signing a bill abolishing executions and commuting all 15 current death sentences to life in prison without parole.

After taking more than a month to make his decision, Quinn wrote in his signing statement, "Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case."

The fact is that Quinn had more than one good reason to sign this bill. He had 20--20 men who have been exonerated from Illinois' death row since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Illinois holds the second highest exoneration record, the first is Florida.

Responding to the news, Illinois' first exonerated death row prisoner, Darby Tillis, said, "It's a great a great day, a great day--there is no death in the air."

Survivors of Chicago police torture (left to right): Victor Saffold, Mark Clements, Anthony Holmes and Darrell Cannon
Survivors of Chicago police torture (left to right): Victor Saffold, Mark Clements, Anthony Holmes and Darrell Cannon

The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois was many years in the making. Between 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois, and 1999, 12 people were executed in Illinois--13 people were exonerated in that same time span.

That error rate was shocking to then-Gov. George Ryan, who imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. In 2003, Ryan cleared death row by commuting the death sentences of every death row prisoner--he also pardoned four men who had been tortured onto death row by Chicago police officers under the command of Jon Burge.

TILLIS POINTS out the long trajectory of this fight:

We worked hard to get the ear of Governor Ryan, we got exonerated and family members out there, and he heard their pleas. We kept on and got the ears of the politicians to see our point, and as a result, we have destroyed this dinosaur. It shows that when we stand together and don't give up, we can win.

Tillis says he believes Quinn signed the legislation because the death penalty nationwide has become discredited by the many innocent people being released--and the fact that the flaws of the system are now more apparent to people than they had been years ago:

It's so different now compared to when we first started. People used to look at us like we were the culprits. Now they see us, and they want to stand with us. They say, "Hey, can I hold that picket sign?" and "Keep up the good work." People can see that the death penalty is senseless--it won't cure the ills in society. They can see the corrupt and flawed nature of the system.

Nathson Fields, who spent 18 years in prison, 11 of those years on death row, agrees. "Twenty mistakes is too many--20 men who almost lost their lives," he said. "This is way overdue."

Nathson emphasizes the human capacity for error as a factor he believes swayed the governor into signing the bill: "It happens all the time. Humans make mistakes."

Of course, there are different kinds of mistakes. Sometimes, the "mistake" is a witness wrongfully identifying someone, which sends the wrong person to prison. But all too often, the "mistake" is the result of police who lie to suspects, plant evidence, and beat, coerce or threaten people into making a false confession. Another common "mistake" is prosecutors who hide evidence from defendants or purposely push for convictions, even when the evidence points elsewhere.

Then, of course, there are the corrupt judges who knowingly send the wrong person to prison and even to the death house. Both Nathson Fields and Darby Tillis were sent to death row after trials presided over by Judge Thomas J. Maloney. Maloney was later found guilty of taking bribes to fix cases and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But the men he sent to jail remained behind bars.

Marvin Reeves spent 21 years in prison based on snitch testimony and the confession of his co-defendant Ronnie Kitchen, who was tortured by Chicago police until he falsely confessed that both men had committed a crime. As Marvin explained:

The police came out and lied about us, and nobody ever asked any questions. Now people are asking questions. They see my case, and Ronnie's, and Mark Clements', and they begin to ask questions and see the problems. They wonder why the prosecution didn't do a proper investigation. They begin to ask the hard question: Why? Why were we locked up?

Marvin believes the case of Anthony Porter was especially important in shifting how people view the criminal justice system in Illinois. Porter spent 18 years on death row, professing his innocence. More than 30 judges passed off on his case, and he came within 50 hours of being executed before journalism students from Northwestern University did what the court system never did--a proper investigation. Porter was proven innocent and released in 1999.

As Marvin says:

People didn't look at the criminal justice system like they do now--now after the Anthony Porter case, the case of the Ford Heights Four, the Rolando Cruz case. All of that convinced Governor Ryan to decide that he couldn't leave office in good conscience without commuting all those sentences.

He said that not only was the death penalty system broken, but also it was irreparable. And now Governor Quinn sees the same thing. He's not going to say it, but a big reason for him signing the bill is Jon Burge and his cronies--all the exposure of these racist cops, judges and lying prosecutors. Governor Quinn sees the same thing Governor Ryan saw.

While many people agree that the criminal justice system is flawed, and often traps and incarcerates the wrong people, there's always the question of what to say when the guilt of a defendant is certain. Darby Tillis has thought long and hard about that question:

I used to say I would kill the person who killed my loved one if I saw him do it. But I had a change of heart on that. You have to look beyond the person to understand why they did what they did. In some of these communities in Chicago, they're so barren, so desolate--they're like a desert. When I go there, I feel nothing but pain and hurt. It feels deadly--there's such a lack of resources.

When you grow up and live in a community like that, you become subhuman because you live like you're in a combat zone. Police are cruising around, and young men are out on the street with nothing to do in miserable circumstances. Just like the soldiers coming back from Iraq who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, so do the people in these desolate, crime-ridden, cop-patrolled communities.

They're battlegrounds, and you don't hear any of the politicians saying anything about it. These problems need to seriously be addressed and not just by a program or two--it needs to be deeper than that.

THE BATTLE for abolition in Illinois has been fought on many fronts--the excellent investigative reporting by journalists for the Chicago Tribune who documented the flaws of the system, the many great lawyers battling it out in the courtrooms, the activists and exonerated who pounded the pavement and organized rallies and forums.

Abolitionists will have to keep their guard up, as two bills have already been introduced to reinstate the death penalty. No doubt these bills will have the backing of prosecutors angry that one of their prized tools is missing. The death penalty is often used to threaten suspects into falsely confessing and getting people to plead guilty to get a lesser sentence. Prosecutors will want to bring executions back.

"We just have to make sure to keep up the activist front," says Mark Clements, a national organizer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and a former prisoner who served 28 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. Mark was convicted when he was 16 years old--had he been an adult at the time, he probably would have been sentenced to death, and he might not be here today.

"This is a great step forward, but this struggle is far from over," Clements said. "Innocent men and women and tortured men are still locked up, some without lawyers, some without hope. We have to be that hope, and keep up the struggle."

Darby Tillis says those who want to get rid of the death penalty for good have a bigger job ahead of us: "We have to align ourselves with people who want to build a safe and sound society. We've shown people what we can do when we come together. We can get justice if we work hard."

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