He came into the courtroom after his shackles were removed wearing his prison oranges and was brought before the judge to hear whether he had been found guilty of murdering his elderly parents.
Moments later on that January 1994 day, McHenry County Judge Henry Cowlin told Gary Gauger that he was sentenced to die.
After spending 20 months in county jail and 22 months in Statesville prison, Gauger was released after an appellate court found that he was arrested without probable cause.
Seventeen years later, the death sentence no longer is an option in Illinois after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Wednesday repealing the state’s death penalty, aligning Illinois with 15 other states that have done away with the death penalty.
The law will go into effect July 1.
Quinn also commuted the sentences of 15 death row inmates to life without parole.
The legislation to repeal the death penalty passed in the House and Senate in January. State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, and Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, voted for the measure. State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, voted against it.
Wednesday’s news was welcome by Gauger, who has become a vocal advocate for abolition of the death penalty.
“The greatest benefit is that it places a higher value on human life and demonstrates that as a society, we can aspire for higher morality than an individual might be able to muster on their own,” Gauger said.
Phil Hiscock, chief of the criminal division for McHenry County, said that he had some concerns about a death penalty-free state.
“At this point, I think my concerns go out to the families of murdered victims who have had to deal with the uncertainty of the death penalty over the last 11 years,” Hiscock said.
“A lot of the time, victims of murdered families are forgotten.”
Hiscock said that the decision to seek capital punishment was the most difficult and important decision a prosecutor had to make, but he said he believed it should be available.
“My personal opinion is that the death penalty should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes where there is strong evidence,” Hiscock said.
He also pointed to death penalty reforms introduced based on concerns raised by former Gov. George Ryan pertaining to better training for prosecutors and defense attorneys, better funding for defense attorneys, and the required videotaping of all confessions.
Ryan’s moratorium on executions came in January 2000 after revelations regarding the innocence of 13 death row inmates.
McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren said that the death penalty debate was one with which he personally struggles.
“I always have had questions in my mind about the death penalty and how it’s applied,” Nygren said. “You could commit a horrible crime where there’s no question that you did it in Wisconsin and you’d go to prison. In Illinois, you could go to death.”
“I always felt that if you’re going to have a death penalty, there should be a national standard so people are treated the same in each state.”
Nygren also said that if he had a family member who was murdered, he’d want to see the death penalty invoked. He was less certain about whether Quinn’s decision would have much effect on crime in Illinois. Those committing crimes of passion likely are not deterred by the fact that they could lose their life.
“Do I think it’ll have a huge impact on crime in Illinois? Probably not,” Nygren said. “We in law enforcement can function with or without the death penalty. I don’t think it affects the job we do.”
But Franks, who voted against the legislation in the House, said he disapproved of the repeal.
“I think it’s a mistake. That’s why I voted against it,” Franks said. “I think [the death penalty] is a necessary tool for law enforcement.”
Franks also said that he thought that eliminating the death penalty as a possible punishment put those trying to resolve criminal cases at a disadvantage. He also feels that the death penalty is necessary because murder victims and their families need justice.
“When a jury finds that a person has committed such horrible crimes that he or she should be put to death, I think the jury should be listened to,” Franks said. “There was an expectation of the victim’s family that that punishment would be given and performed. I hate to lessen the severity of these crimes.
“In some cases, when you see the [serial killer John Wayne] Gacys of the world and people who prey on children, there’s no place in society for them,” he said. “There ought to be an ultimate price to be paid.”