The death penalty has been largely off Illinoisans’ minds since Gov. George Ryan declared a freeze a decade ago and emptied death row three years later, says St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Pat Gauen. It is a political and philosophical issue that hangs in limbo between a law that provides for lethal injections and an executive policy — continued by Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn — not to use it. Death row began repopulating long enough ago that some of its new residents’ appeals are running out, and Quinn is considering a bill that would abolish the death penalty.
Fifteen people have been convicted of capital murder since Ryan commuted 167 death sentences in 2003. Gauen dissects the case of Cecil Sutherland, who was convicted of murder based on very good but not perfect evidence. Are we sure enough of Sutherland’s guilt to stick a needle of poison into his arm?, Gauen asks. The defense in Sutherland’s second trial spent more than $2 million in taxpayers’ money from a capital litigation fund. Using 2009 figures, that would have been enough to keep him in prison for almost 100 years.