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Our Opinion: Quinn should follow lieutenant governor’s advice 

 

The State Journal-Register
January 27, 2011

Gov. Pat Quinn last year had the rare privilege of choosing his running mate for the general election. In making Sheila Simon his choice for lieutenant governor, Quinn made it clear that the office to which he had been elected in 2002 and 2006 would gain new status in his administration.

Simon’s first major act since her inauguration this month will test whether things really have changed.
In a letter Monday, Simon urged Quinn to sign the bill passed by the General Assembly two weeks ago that will abolish the death penalty in Illinois. We believe Quinn should follow Simon’s advice.

“Even in the best of circumstances, our system allows for error,” Simon writes. “We try criminal cases to a standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ It is a higher standard than the burden in civil cases, but it is not ‘beyond all doubt.’ Our system links an irrevocable punishment to a standard where jurors could have some nagging questions about the defendant’s guilt. The results demand pause.”

In an interview Monday with State Journal-Register reporter Chris Wetterich, Simon said the letter was the result of a conversation she had with Quinn about the death penalty bill, which passed in the General Assembly on Jan. 11. Quinn, who officially received the bill Jan. 18 and has 60 days to act on it, asked her to put her thoughts in writing, which she did in Monday’s letter.

Like Simon, we appreciate Quinn’s concern that he give consideration to all sides before acting on this bill.

But we also recognize that nothing in the House and Senate floor debate on this bill earlier this month should have been new to anyone who has followed this issue. And we assume that the person who since 2003 had been a heartbeat away from being governor — and had been governor for nearly two years when the bill passed — would have followed this issue.

We wish Simon had put in writing what she told Wetterich about the “John Wayne Gacy” argument in favor of retaining capital punishment for the most heinous crimes: “(I)t still does not persuade me that the state should be the agent to kill someone — particularly in a circumstance where we’re not sure that our system gets to the right answer.” As Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, noted in his floor speech supporting the bill, executing the wrong person — as Illinois nearly did 20 times — only makes the crime more heinous.

Simon is not the only public official weighing in on the matter. A DuPage County judge this week told the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights that it was “grossly irresponsible” for Quinn to leave the judicial system in the dark about his plans. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys should know now whether the death penalty will exist as current murder trials proceed.

Quinn should not need cajoling to sign this bill. Supporting both the 11-year-old moratorium on executions and the retention of capital punishment is not a tenable situation for any governor, nor does it make sense as public policy. By that standard, Quinn would allow defendants to be sentenced to death, but he would leave the signing of the execution warrant to some future governor.

He should proudly embrace the fact that Illinois has admitted the moral shortcomings of capital punishment here.

Quinn should sign this bill and end this chapter in our state’s history. Then he must commute the death sentences of the 15 people now on death row to life in prison to remove all vestiges of a failed system.

Governor, you chose Sheila Simon because you valued her judgment. You should heed her counsel on this matter.