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State

Illinois Democrats grill Rauner aide on death penalty plan

Gov. Bruce Rauner (center) addresses reporters May 8 outside his state Capitol office in Springfield. Rauner, a Republican, wants to reinstate the death penalty in the state. He added the provision May 14 into gun legislation favored by Democrats. The bill now goes back to the Democratic-controlled Legislature for approval.
Gov. Bruce Rauner (center) addresses reporters May 8 outside his state Capitol office in Springfield. Rauner, a Republican, wants to reinstate the death penalty in the state. He added the provision May 14 into gun legislation favored by Democrats. The bill now goes back to the Democratic-controlled Legislature for approval.

SPRINGFIELD – Democratic legislators grilled a top aide to Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday over a compromise plan to reinstate the death penalty in exchange for even stricter gun restrictions than the ones the Legislature approved.

Rauner used his veto powers last week to insert the capital punishment language, along with measures that include extending the waiting period on all guns from 24 to 72 hours, into a bill both chambers approved with veto-proof majorities. The original bill would impose the restriction just for assault-style weapons.

The prospect of returning capital punishment is a long shot in Illinois, where executions were halted in 2000 when then-Gov. George Ryan warned of “the demon of error.” While 12 men were executed in Illinois after death sentences were re-established in 1977, 13 were freed because of errors or insufficient evidence.

The House Judiciary-Criminal Committee hearing included an impassioned plea to retain the prohibition on executions from Karen Yarbrough, the Cook County recorder of deeds, who as a state representative sponsored the abolition legislation. Committee Democrats closely questioned Illinois State Police Director Leo Schmitz and David Risely, Rauner’s director of criminal justice and public safety policy, who argued that Rauner’s plan is “specifically crafted” to remedy past problems.

In the amendatory veto, the first-term governor added a provision to restore capital punishment for mass murderers and those who kill police officers. It would apply only in cases where a jury finds guilt beyond all doubt – not just “reasonable doubt,” as is the current criminal standard.

Lawmakers can accept Rauner’s changes with a simple majority vote in both chambers, reject them and enact the original bill with a three-fifths majority, or do nothing, which would kill both versions. Rep. Jonathon Carroll, the Northbrook Democrat who sponsored the initial waiting-period legislation, would not say what path he would take next.

Rauner had assigned a task force to study the matter of gun violence but didn’t wait for its recommendations before unveiling his own plan, another point of irritation for Rep. Kathleen Willis, who sponsored a gun-dealer licensing bill that Rauner vetoed earlier this spring. She called Rauner’s amendatory veto language a “poison pill.”

“Instead of sitting back and being like a punching bag for critics, he wanted to lay on the table what he was for, affirmatively, instead of just playing defense, and so this was the manner in which he chose to do so,” Risely said.

Besides the longer waiting period for all guns, Rauner’s plan would ban bump stocks and trigger cranks, which speed up firing rates – another action preferred by Democrats. It also would authorize confiscation of weapons for those deemed dangerous, find local money for police and mental health officers in schools and require judges in violent gun cases to explain their rationale for approving plea agreements which result in reduced sentences.

Rob Warden, who has spent years exposing wrongful convictions as a journalist and academic, told lawmakers that even a “limited” death penalty is ripe for lawmakers’ expansion. When Illinois restored capital punishment in 1977, there were six “aggravating factors,” or legal determinations that, if met, could warrant a death sentence, Warden said. When it was abolished, there were 20.

Warden said 19 states have eliminated capital punishment and 21 that have it haven’t executed anyone in five years.

“Restoring the death penalty in Illinois would put us squarely on the wrong side of history,” Warden said.

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