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The Nation

March 10, 2011

Illinois abolishes death penalty, clears death row

(Continued)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. —

Twenty people have been freed from death row after evidence surfaced to show they were innocent or had been convicted improperly. Then-Gov. George Ryan halted executions in 2000 rather than risk killing an innocent man. The state's last execution took place in 1999.

Quinn called this the hardest decision he has had to make as governor, but one he felt was required.

"If the system can't be guaranteed 100 percent error-free, then we shouldn't have the system," Quinn said. "It cannot stand."

He also said capital punishment was too arbitrary. A prosecutor in one county might seek the death penalty, while another prosecutor dealing with a similar crime might not, he said. And death sentences might be imposed on minorities and poor people more often than on wealthy, white defendants.

Quinn commuted the sentences of all 15 men remaining on death row. They will now serve life in prison with no hope of parole.

The governor sought to console those whose loved ones had been slain, saying the "family of Illinois" was with them. He said he understands victims will never be healed.

Death penalty opponents hailed Illinois' decision and said it will carry more weight than abolition in states that rarely used the death penalty.

"Illinois stands out because it was a state that used it, reconsidered it and now rejected it," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Gary Gauger, who was sentenced to die for killing his parents before ultimately being proven innocent, said other states will follow Illinois' example in the long run.

"The death penalty is a throwback to a time when society did not have the ability to hold homicidal maniacs ... for the rest of their lives," Gauger said.

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