Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday called for reviving the death penalty in his state, which banned the practice in 2011 and has not carried out an execution in nearly two decades.
Rauner’s proposal breaks with recent history, which has seen Illinois among several states that have shifted away from capital punishment by freezing or outright abolishing the practice. In his announcement, Rauner said the death penalty should be reinstated for mass murderers or people who kill members of law enforcement.
“Individuals who commit mass murder, individuals who choose to murder a law enforcement officer, they deserve to have their life taken,” Rauner, a Republican who took office in 2015 and is up for reelection this year, said at a news conference. “They deserve that.”
Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty, and Illinois is among the seven that have done so since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks capital punishment. Four other states have had moratoriums imposed by their governors during the same period, which has seen a nationwide decline in both death sentences and executions.
Nebraska recently came close to abolishing the death penalty before reversing course. Lawmakers there passed a bill banning the death penalty in 2015, but opponents pushed the issue onto the ballot in 2016 as a referendum and Nebraskans voted to keep capital punishment in place.
Illinois banned its death penalty in 2011, but the state had halted executions long before that. In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan (R) declared a moratorium and decried the death penalty as “fraught with error.” He then commuted all of the state’s death sentences in 2003, an unprecedented move.
One of his successors, Pat Quinn (D), signed legislation that abolished the death penalty entirely in 2011. He also pointed to the risks of executing a potentially innocent person, saying: “If the system can’t be guaranteed, 100-percent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system.”
Public support for the death penalty has been declining for years. A Gallup poll found that 55 percent of Americans supported the practice last year, down from 80 percent in the mid-1990s. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that seven in 10 Americans believed there was some risk that an innocent person could be put to death — a feeling that was shared by majorities of those who supported and opposed the death penalty alike.
Rauner on Monday alluded to the concerns his predecessors had regarding innocent people being sentenced to death at trial. His office said defendants in death penalty cases would have to be convicted by juries “beyond all doubt,” rather than the “beyond a reasonable doubt" standard more commonly seen in criminal trials. In his announcement, Rauner pointed to times he said people were “caught in the act” or there are “multiple witnesses and they’re fleeing the act.”
“There are plenty of cases where there’s no doubt who’s guilty,” Rauner said at his news conference. “And they deserve to give up their life when they take the life of a police officer, our heroes, or they take the life of many people. That is just so atrocious, so evil, that they deserve to give up their life.”
Rauner’s proposal calls for creating a homicide category called “death penalty murder” for people who kill law enforcement officers or mass killers, defined as those who kill “two or more people without lawful justification,” according to his office.
The proposal was made as part of Rauner’s response to a gun-control bill. He also called for an extended waiting period for any gun purchases, advocated for restraining orders to be used to “disarm dangerous individuals” and asked for judges and prosecutors to have to explain reduced charges in plea deals reached in gun cases.
Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D), the House majority leader, dismissed Rauner's call to reinstate the death penalty with a brief statement Monday.
"On its merits, the governor's proposal is a terrible idea," she said.
Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton (D) also was critical, noting that prior issues with capital punishment prompted lawmakers to abolish it years earlier.
“The death penalty should never be used as a political tool to advance one’s agenda,” Cullerton said in a statement. “Doing so is in large part why we had so many problems and overturned convictions. That’s why we had bipartisan support to abolish capital punishment. I’ve seen nothing from today’s announcement to suggest that lesson has been learned.”
Republican legislators, meanwhile, backed Rauner’s idea. Bill Brady, the Illinois Senate Republican Leader, said, “Reinstating society’s most serious penalty for the most serious of violent crimes, with the proper safeguards, is an appropriate response to the horrific violence we have witnessed far too often in recent times.”
James B. Durkin, the Illinois House Republican leader, said in a statement, “Allowing a prosecutor the option to seek the death penalty in the most horrific and brutal of crimes should be the law of Illinois and sends a message that we support those who wear the badge.”