Rauner's amendatory veto revives death-penalty debate

Rauner's amendatory veto revives death-penalty debate

CHICAGO — After Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation in 2011 abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, Urbana attorney Steve Beckett thought the capital punishment debate was behind him.

But Gov. Bruce Rauner brought it back Monday, when he proposed the death penalty for cop killers and mass murderers.

"It's deja vu all over again," said Beckett, who believes Rauner's proposal is mostly to help his re-election campaign. "It's a great political issue. It's a tough-on-crime issue, a great issue for a political campaign."

Rauner brought the issue back by issuing an amendatory veto to a bill that would have required a 72-hour waiting period for buying assault weapons, making changes that would extend the 72-hour waiting period to all gun purchases, ban bump stocks and speed up the process to remove guns from potentially dangerous people with a restraining order.

It also added language that would impose the death penalty on those who kill police officers or two or more people.

"These individuals who commit mass murder, these individuals who choose to murder a law-enforcement officer, they deserve to have their life taken," Rauner said Monday at a press conference in Chicago.

Beckett, who has been involved with more than a dozen death-penalty cases in his nearly 45-year career, said he remains opposed to capital punishment.

"My thoughts on the death penalty haven't changed a bit," he said. "The way it works out in the long run is just arbitrary and capricious. ... If the defendant's family has money, they'll never get the death penalty."

Despite opposing the death penalty, Beckett said he understands the emotional appeal.

He's representing the family of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, who disappeared June 9, 2017, after getting into a car on campus in Urbana. Brendt Christensen faces federal charges of kidnapping resulting in death in the incident.

Since it's a federal case, prosecutors were able to seek the death penalty against Christensen and chose to do so.

"I represent Yingying's family, who lost their daughter," Beckett said. "I've dealt with people who feel that emotional appeal. But in the long run, for our state legal system, it's just not a good idea."

Expert: Not a deterrent

For the amendatory veto to become law, the General Assembly would have to approve it with a simple majority. The legislature could also override the amendatory veto with a three-fifths majority, or let it die by doing nothing.

State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, who voted against the original bill, said he's still reviewing the 28-page amendatory veto.

State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who also voted against the original bill, also said he's still looking over the details.

"I appreciate the governor's work to try to find a bipartisan consensus on legislation that is aimed at improving public safety," Barickman said in a statement. "I remain committed to developing bipartisan solutions that improve public safety while protecting people's rights."

Several other local representatives could not be reached for comment.

The original bill passed the House, 79-37, and the Senate, 43-15.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said the death penalty doesn't reduce murders generally or the murders of police officers specifically.

"The DPIC doesn't take a position for or against the death penalty. The question is whether it makes sense to try to bring back the death penalty in a state in which it has proven to be unreliable and dangerous and to do it without public hearings," Dunham said.

The DPIC studied whether the presence of the death penalty deters murders of police officers and found that it didn't.

"We looked at 29 years of FBI data on murder rates and killings of police officers, and what we found is there's no evidence that the death penalty contributes in any measurable way to protecting the public or to protecting police officers," Dunham said. "We found that police officers were killed at higher rates over this 30-year period in states that had the death penalty than in states that didn't."

From 1987 to 2015, while there were 0.22 police officer murders per million people in death penalty states, there were just 0.16 in states without the death penalty.

That's because "the more violent a state is, the more violent its culture is, the more likely it is to have the death penalty," he said.

Urbana police chief: A 'just' punishment

Urbana Police Chief Sylvia Morgan agreed that the death penalty probably isn't a deterrent.

"I would be in support of that, whether I think it's a deterrent or not," she said. "It's hard to determine whether the threat of going to prison or jail or the death penalty are actually deterrents. In some cases, they don't actually think about what the actual consequences are."

But Morgan said the death penalty is a just consequence for mass murderers and police killers.

"There've been a lot of intentional killings of police officers nationwide," she said. "I think that (the death penalty) is a punishment that would be just."

Beckett said the narrow scope of the proposed death penalty could easily lead to a slippery slope.

"You start with police officers, but what about firefighters, what about social workers, what about teachers? It will never end," he said. "If you start down that path, then where do you stop? What's a good murder? There's no such thing."

In 2000, Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty because of the number of wrongful convictions.

Rauner's proposal attempts to avoid that by raising the burden of proof from "beyond a reasonable doubt" to "beyond all doubt," which Beckett said is not a legal standard that currently exists.

"That would change the legal system," he said.

"There's no state that uses that standard," Dunham said. "And nobody knows how that translates into reality."