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In Memoriam: Illinois' Death Penalty

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    NEWSLETTERS

     

    This morning’s execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by a Utah firing squad made me think of the last prisoner executed here in Illinois.

    Don’t remember? It’s been a long time. His name was Andrew Kokoraleis, a member of the Chicago Rippers, a thrill-kill cult that  raped, strangled and dismembered women while reciting from The Satanic Bible. The four-man crew was suspected in the murders of 18 women.

    Kokoraleis was put to death by lethal injection on March 16, 1999, at Tamms Correctional Center. He was Gov. George Ryan’s first, and only, execution. As a legislator, Ryan had supported the death penalty. As governor, he agonized over taking a man’s life, calling it “the most emotional experience I have ever been through in my life. It all came down to me--the one fellow who has to pull the switch. Quite frankly, that is too much to ask of one person.”

    Ryan was disturbed by the fact that over a dozen Death Row inmates had been proven innocent after trials. On a deeper level, he simply didn’t have the stomach to sign a death warrant. When Attorney General Jim Ryan asked for an execution date for another prisoner, the governor deflected his responsibility by declaring a moratorium on the death penalty.

    “I knew I couldn't make myself live through what I’d experienced with Kokoraleis,”Ryan would tell The Nation. “I just couldn't do it again.”

    Because of Ryan, it’s unlikely we will ever witness another execution in Illinois. Just before leaving office, he commuted all death sentences to life in prison (including that of Kokoraleis’ collaborator, Edward Spreitzer.)

    Death Row is filling up again. Since 2003, over a dozen men have been sentenced to die. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn continued Ryan’s moratorium. Bill Brady would end it.

    “The governor ought to handle death penalty situations in a case-by-case basis in order to uphold the law of Illinois,” Brady has said. “I support the death penalty in limited circumstances, and I think it’s incumbent upon the governor to make sure that innocent people are not put to death. We don’t need a moratorium to do it for us.”

    But because death penalty cases take so long to work their way through the courts, it’s unlikely that one would arrive on Brady’s desk should he be elected.

    The death penalty is dying out in the United States. In the last three years, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have banned executions, bringing the number of anti-death penalty states to 14, most in the northern U.S. Our neighbors Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan all ban it. Executions are still legal in Illinois, but we may as well be on that list, too.