The Illinois House approved a plan to abolish capital punishment Thursday in a whirlwind reversal on a historic vote.
The bill now goes to the state Senate.
The repeal measure came up one vote short during a 59-58 tally Thursday, but a second vote yielded the required 60 votes. The measure passed, 60-54.
News of the reversal shocked Sue Rekenthaler, who is the wife of Gary Gauger, who once sat on death row before having his case overturned.
Rekenthaler, of Richmond, had been lobbying for passage of the bill Tuesday and Wednesday in Springfield.
“Finally you pass something that will save taxpayers money,” Rekenthaler said. “[The death penalty] is expensive, and so few cases actually get the death penalty.”
Supporters said it was time to end a sad history in Illinois in which 20 people condemned to death have been freed after exoneration or new evidence surfaced that cast doubt on their convictions.
“It makes sense morally, it makes sense legally. It makes sense ethically, and it makes sense financially,” Gauger said.
Gauger was sentenced to die by lethal injection after a McHenry County jury convicted him late in 1993 of his elderly parents’ grisly murders.
That conviction was overturned in 1996. Former Gov. George Ryan pardoned him, and two motorcycle gang members were convicted of murdering Ruth and Morris Gauger as part of a federal racketeering case.
Since being freed from prison, Gauger has spoken publicly, appeared on national TV, and written a book on how the death penalty should be repealed.
The death penalty repeal bill now will go to the Senate.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said he supported abolishing the death penalty after a historic House vote to repeal it.
But the Chicago Democrat stopped short Thursday of saying he would ask other senators to support abolition.
Cullerton said it was a very personal decision, and people should vote their conscience.
Ryan, declaring that the capital punishment system was “haunted by the demon of error,” announced a moratorium on executions in 2000 and commuted the death sentences of 167 people to life in prison.
Two successors to Ryan have observed the moratorium, including Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn has said he supports the death penalty but won’t reinstate the punishment until he’s sure that it works. His office would not say Thursday whether he supported the legislation.
Rekenthaler is confident the bill will pass in the Senate before being sent to the Governor Quinn. She noted that state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
Rekenthaler has been working with the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.
“I’m sure in the next couple of days, we’ll be continuing the lobbying,” Rekenthaler said. “We’ve been talking with [senators] who are on the fence or have said ‘No, I’m not supporting it.’
“Why is the state of Illinois in the business of killing people,” Rekenthaler added. “It’s an unjust system. Not every murder case gets the death penalty.”
According to the Illinois General Assembly website, state Reps. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, voted against the repeal.
State Rep. Mark Beaubien, R-Barrington Hills, voted for the repeal.
Tryon said there needed to be discussion on reforms to the death penalty before a full abolishment.
The state has too many circumstances where the death penalty can be applied.
He would, however, want to have the death penalty for cases for the most serious crimes, such as multiple murders over multiple days or acts of terrorism.
Critics of abolition said the ultimate punishment had been fixed, remained a deterrent, and should remain an option for families seeking justice.
The legislature adopted reforms – such as videotaped confessions and better access to DNA evidence – based on findings of a Ryan-appointed commission, and set up a fund to pay for proper defenses of those accused.
“We have instituted substantial reforms to ensure that individuals who have been charged have more than due process,” said Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican who led the transformation effort a decade ago.
Since then, 15 people have been put on death row even though they won’t face execution as long as the moratorium lasts. In recent years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty.
“This is reflective of a national momentum that Illinois has been at the forefront of,” said Jeremy Schroeder, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Whether capital punishment deters crime has been debated a long time. But if it doesn’t prevent perpetrators from going through with evil design, it helps solve crimes once they’re committed, said Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, a former FBI agent.
Sacia listed three murder cases, some he investigated, in the past three decades in which the threat of capital punishment prompted reluctant suspects to help police find the body of a victim and solve the crime.
But Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, pointed out that the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” did not include the disclaimer, “unless it’s a heinous crime and you’re punishing someone.”
“We’ve put innocent people to death; it’s that simple,” Lang said. “Above all, our responsibility is to protect the innocent.