Ten years ago, Illinois abolished the death penalty. The moment of abolition, effected by then-Governor Pat Quinn with a stroke of the pen, capped years of advocacy by a wide range of stakeholders. They included individuals who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, faith-based leaders, journalists, community organizers, families of victims of crime, and elected officials.
Seven states have followed in Illinois’ wake; a decade later, 23 states and the District of Columbia do not impose the death penalty. In the aftermath of 13 federal executions during President Donald Trump’s final months in office, President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland have indicated that they support reinstating the moratorium on federal capital punishment. In March, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill making Virginia the first state in the South to ban capital punishment.
To commemorate the anniversary, Injustice Watch asked people whose lives were changed by the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois and those involved in the campaign to abolish it to reflect on the moment of abolition and what it means today. In this series of short videos, seven advocates reflect on crime, punishment, mercy, forgiveness and the range of perspectives that compelled them to advocate. They all came to this issue for highly personal and distinct reasons. What they had in common was their shared conviction that the death penalty was immoral. Their shared sincerity and passion, a decade later, are palpable.
Click below to watch the videos.
Gary Gauger was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of his parents in McHenry County. In 1996 the Illinois Appellate Court vacated his conviction and Gov. George Ryan pardoned him in 2002 based on actual innocence. Gauger became an advocate against the death penalty based on his own experience. After his release, he told lawyers at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, who had represented him on appeal, “Until this happened, I really believed in the criminal justice system.”
As an Illinois state senator in 2011, Attorney General Kwame Raoul sponsored the bill that abolished the death penalty. During debate, he declared on the state house floor that Illinois had “an opportunity to part company with countries that are the worst civil rights violators and join the civilized world by ending this practice of putting to death innocent people.”
Cornelia Grumman won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 series of Chicago Tribune editorials calling for abolition of the death penalty. The final article in the series described the “astonishing failings in the Illinois criminal justice system,” including wrongful convictions of individuals sentenced to death.
As the executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Jeremy Schroeder argued to the Deficit Reduction Committee of the Illinois Legislature that the death penalty was an expensive and inefficient form of punishment.
Jeanne Bishop’s sister Nancy Bishop Langert was murdered in 1990. She joined the fight for abolition because she and other family members of murder victims did not want to desecrate the memories of their loved ones by killing more.
Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, former president of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, was a spiritual advisor to Andrew Kokaraleis, the last prisoner to be executed by the State of Illinois. In his video he speaks of his belief that “each and every human being is created in the likeness of God, and therefore, every life is inherently sacred.”
Chick Hoffman was a lawyer with the Office of the Appellate Defender who frequently represented individuals condemned to death. “As Sister Helen Prejean teaches us, the real question is not whether they deserve to die, but whether we deserve to kill them,” Hoffman wrote in a 2011 Chicago Tribune blog. “Given Illinois’ inherently arbitrary, racist, mistake-prone, corrupt death penalty process, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘no.’”
Video editing by Jenny Shi