SPRINGFIELD — A Republican state lawmaker is calling for the resurrection of the death penalty in Illinois after two mass shootings in the U.S. and recent gun violence in Chicago.
Barrington Hills Rep. David McSweeney said he will either sponsor or co-sponsor some version of a measure overturning the abolishment former Gov. Pat Quinn placed on capital punishment eight years ago. Former Gov. George Ryan had placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.
At the time, Quinn said Illinois should not have a system in place that might result in the erroneous execution of citizens. McSweeney said “eliminating the death penalty was a terrible mistake.”
“It has been a complete failure,” he said.
Mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 3-4 killed 31 people. In Chicago last weekend, four people were killed and 43 injured in gun-related violence, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Texas officials are pursuing the death penalty against the coward racist who targeted Mexican Americans in El Paso. We should have that tool in the state of Illinois,” McSweeney said. “The time to act is now, because the death penalty is a deterrent that we need to protect our citizens. No one can argue the state of Illinois is a model for how to fight crime.”
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In part, Quinn’s argument for signing legislation making Illinois the 16th state to abolish capital punishment was the lack of advancement in DNA testing, McSweeney said. But DNA technology has progressed “light years” beyond its stage in 2011, he added, to be the “key to ensuring there are no wrongful convictions.”
“I want to make sure there are safeguards,” he said.
According to a Pew Research Center study published last year, 54 percent of Americans support capital punishment for those convicted of murder. That number is up from 49 percent two years prior. Thirty-nine percent of people oppose the death penalty.
McSweeney is not the only Illinois politician to express support for capital punishment. In an unexpected move last year, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed reviving the death penalty by using his amendatory veto power on a firearms measure that needed his signature to become law.
The legislation would have extended the 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases to include assault weapons. Rauner wrote in his veto message that the proposal did not go far enough to prevent gun violence incidents and other public safety concerns.
His addition would have created a new category of crime — a “death penalty murder” — that encompassed anyone 18 or older who killed two or more people “without lawful justification” or if the victim is a police officer.
“The ultimate public safety objectives of this bill would be better served with comprehensive solutions,” he wrote, which included a ban on bump stocks, the addition of mental health and law enforcement personnel in schools, and “reintroducing the death penalty for the most egregious cases.”
The General Assembly did not vote on Rauner’s proposal, effectively running out the clock on the bill.
Before Rauner’s push last year, Illinois’ staunchest supporter of the death penalty in state politics arguably was former Republican Rep. John Cavaletto, from Salem.
Cavaletto’s last iteration of a measure to reinstate the death penalty would have applied to persons older than 18 who were convicted of first-degree murder for killing a police officer, firefighter, employee of a correctional agency, or a child; or for killing more than one person.
Cavaletto’s legislation never moved out of committee, and McSweeney said he knows he faces an uphill battle with the Democratically-controlled General Assembly.
“This one will have a lot of opposition. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the short run, but it’s an issue I will continue to focus on — through public education and through pointing out and proving the advances in DNA technology,” he said. “I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, filed legislation to strike the use of capital punishment by the federal government. The move came after President Donald Trump’s administration announced last month it would resume the use of the death penalty for the first time in 16 years.
“Try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that the death penalty in America is disproportionately imposed on minorities and poor people,” Durbin said in a news release.
But McSweeney said a capital punishment measure is worth having a discussion about in a committee hearing.
“There needs to be a coordinated effort between state officials and the federal government to once and for all end this problem of violence in the city and in our state,” he said. “We need to get tough on crime again in this state and defend our citizens.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that former Gov. George Ryan had placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.