Illinois Death Penalty Laws

Illinois has had a controversial relationship with the death penalty over the past 200 years. This relationship ultimately came to an end in 2011 when the state abolished the death penalty in light of concerns about executing innocent people. Today, criminal defendants no longer have to weigh the chances of being sentenced to death for their crimes. Instead, life in prison with no option for parole is the maximum penalty that can be imposed in Illinois criminal cases. Even though the death penalty is off the table in Illinois, a conviction for a serious crime can still carry significant and life-changing consequences. If you are facing felony criminal charges in Illinois do not hesitate to contact a criminal defense lawyer.

History of the Death Penalty in Illinois

Illinois, like many other states in the country, was initially not hesitant to sentence convicted criminals to death for their crimes. In the 1800s, Illinois executed death-row defendant by public hanging. This method was used until 1928, when the state opted to switch to a private execution by way of the electric chair. The state continued to execute death row inmates using the electric chair until 1972, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty, as currently applied in the states, was unconstitutional.

Following this decision, Illinois revised its death penalty scheme to align with the orders of the Supreme Court. This new version of the death penalty was reinstated in 1974, but ultimately struck down once again, this time by the Supreme Court of Illinois in 1975. The state revised the death penalty scheme once more and reinstated capital punishment in the summer of 1977. Illinois continued to use the electric chair as the method for executing death row inmates until 1990, when it adopted a lethal injection protocol.

Executions and Exonerations in the 1990s

Illinois successfully executed 12 death row inmates following the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977. The first of these executions occurred in 1990 and the last occurred in 1999. However, during this same stretch of time the state exonerated 13 death row inmates. It became clear that there was an issue with the Illinois criminal justice system and that innocent people may be at risk of wrongful execution. As a reaction to this information, the Illinois governor at the time, George Ryan, imposed a temporary moratorium on all death penalty cases. This meant that the death penalty would not be imposed on current death row inmates. Instead, investigators would be given time to review cases for inaccuracies. During this time, Illinois did not stop prosecuting death row cases. In fact, during the time at which the moratorium was in place, the state added 15 criminal defendants to death row.

Illinois Abolishes the Death Penalty

The death penalty became a hot-button issue during the 2010 gubernatorial race. Opponents of the death penalty backed democratic candidate Pat Quinn, who expressed concerns over the state’s record of improperly sentencing innocent people to death. When Quinn was elected, legislation to repeal the Illinois state death penalty made its way rapidly through the state House and Senate. Quinn ultimately signed the bill in 2011, effectively abolishing the death penalty in the state of Illinois. This law, however, only applied to future death row inmates, and not those currently sitting on Illinois’ death row.  So, in addition to signing the law, Quinn also commuted the sentence of all current death row inmates.