Bringing the Death Penalty Back to Illinois?

On May 14, 2018, Governor Rauner suggested bringing back the death penalty. He got national attention as a result. This article will explain some of the history about the death penalty in Illinois, discuss the law on the death penalty, break down Governor Rauner's proposal, and conclude with some observations about our justice system in Illinois.

History of the Death Penalty in Illinois

Illinois has had the death penalty for the longest time, subject to all the times it was suspended. For example, in 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia, which was combined for ruling with Branch v. Texas, that the death penalty was unconstitutional as being used in the U.S. The ruling seemed like a simple one: the death penalty was imposed in an arbitrary manner throughout states and between different states, which had a discriminatory effect. In order to be constitutional, a state was required to ensure that it not be imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The death penalty in Illinois would be abolished as a result.

On July 1, 1974, Illinois reinstituted the death penalty, but the Illinois Supreme Court, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's opinions, struck it down in 1975. Then in 1977, it was reinstituted again after the Legislature believed it created a framework by which it would not be imposed in a random or whimsical manner that the Supreme Court would find unconstitutional.

In the years that followed, the Illinois criminal justice system was shown to be truly flawed, and numerous convictions were overturned and people released after being wrongfully convicted. It was not until 2000 after just over half of the death row inmates' cases had been overturned that Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, later commuting the death sentences for some 164 people.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled again on the death penalty, this time finding that it violated the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to put to death those with intellectual disabilities. The following year, Illinois passed a law that persons whose IQ was lower than 75 could not be put to death. (An IQ of 70 to 75 is generally regarded as significantly below the "average" IQ of 100.)

Then, in 2005, the Illinois House passed a bill that raised the standard to sentence someone to death to being "beyond all doubt," as opposed to "beyond a reasonable doubt," as is required for conviction under our Constitution. The bill never got out of the Senate committee.

Finally, in 2011, the death penalty was abolished in Illinois. The last person to be executed in Illinois occurred in 1999.

Governor Rauner's Proposal (as outlined in his speech on May 14, 2018)

Under Governor Rauner's proposal, the only people who would be eligible to be sentenced to death would be (1) those who kill law enforcement officers and (2) those who are "mass murderers," which he stated were those who killed two or more people. In addition, imposition of the death penalty could not be imposed unless a person was found guilty "beyond all doubt," instead of "beyond a reasonable doubt," as our Constitution requires. (This should catch any reader as being eerily familiar, given the 2005 House bill discussed above.) Finally, any appeals court would have to raise the standard by which it reviews such cases, so that the evidence to support a guilty verdict and imposition of the death penalty could be independently re-examined without any deference to a jury's decision.


Regardless of any feelings any of us might have as to whether or not someone should be put to death and under what circumstances it may be acceptable to impose such a sentence, any resident of Illinois should be cautious. One thing we know from our history is that our justice system does not always work the way we expect it. When Governor Ryan imposed the moratorium back in 2000, it was in response to more than 50% of the people on death row having their convictions overturned. These overturned convictions were not simply due to some procedural error, but because of actual innocence, such as when DNA revealed a murder to be entirely innocent. This should give any of us pause. If our state can wrongfully convict and wrongfully sentence more than 50% of the people on death row, how often does the justice system get it right in other cases, cases we might not hear about, because those wrongfully convicted "only" served some time in prison, instead of a harsher sentence.

At Johnson Law Group, we handle criminal cases, and have seen it all. We've seen the innocent accused of crimes they did not commit. We've worked on the appeals and pardons of the wrongfully convicted. We know just how flawed Illinois' justice system can be. The only protection if you or someone you know is charged with a crime is to put a fighter in your corner, and we're known for fighting for our clients. We're available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and consult with people about protecting their rights for free. Please contact us if your liberty—or possibly even soon, your life—is at risk because of a criminal charge.

Copyright © 2018 by Brendan Bukalski

The information provided in this column is general in nature, and should not be relied upon as legal advice or interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship . As a general rule, all specific legal problems should be handled by an individual's attorney. All rights reserved. Any copying, duplication, or commercial use of the information contained in this column is strictly prohibited without prior permission.

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