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Death penalty abolition will have impact

GENEVA – Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon doesn’t think prosecuting murders will get any easier now that he no longer can seek the death penalty.

But murder trials in the county and the rest of the state could come to their conclusions faster, McMahon said.

“To the extent that we can bring these cases to resolution sooner, and help the families of the victims get some measure of closure and allow the healing process to begin sooner, [it] will be helpful,” McMahon said.

Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. In making that decision, Quinn also commuted the sentences of 15 inmates on death row to natural life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Quinn mulled over his decision this past weekend and signed the proposal in a private ceremony with its sponsors, State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, and State Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Broadview.

“This was the most difficult decision I’ve made as governor,” Quinn said later during a news conference. “It was made after many days and nights of reflection and review. For those who support this decision, I’ve receive many communications. And for those who oppose this decision, I’ve received many communications.”

Kane County’s criminal justice officials said the decision did not surprise them.

Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez said the decision would not impact operations at his office.

But he said the decision to abolish the death penalty in all cases – even those involving heinous murders, including slayings of police officers – raises some difficult questions going forward.

“I know there would be a lot of people, including those in my profession, who think there need to be some special protections for police officers,” Perez said. “We are tasked with maintaining order, and there will probably be people out there who worry that if someone has no regard for the life of an officer, what chance do they have?

“But does it matter if the life taken is that of an 80-year-old grandmother or a police officer?”

Perez said he may be willing to support efforts to reinstate the death penalty for particularly heinous murders. But he said his opinion on any potential legislation would be determined by the “particular parameters” of any new law.

Keith Brown, chief judge of the 16th Judicial Circuit, which includes Kane County, said he could not comment on the governor’s decision.

“We, as judges, are sworn to follow the law, and we will follow the law,” Brown said.

However, he said the lack of a death penalty option should ease some of the burden that courts have shouldered for decades to “allocate additional resources” to murder trials.

Brown said prosecuting murders should become less time consuming and less expensive, as the county and the state will no longer need to pay additional attorney’s fees for defendants, pay to bring in additional juries or pay staff and court costs for extended trials.

“These all have a cost factor to them,” Brown said.

McMahon also would not comment on the governor’s decision, saying Quinn and the General Assembly acted “within their prerogative” in abolishing the death penalty.

However, McMahon criticized the process by which the General Assembly approved the bill.

“To rush it through in a veto session was not fair to family members [of murder victims],” McMahon said.

McMahon also said state officials’ delay in dealing with the death penalty, since former Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on executions in 2000, has also been unfair to victims’ families.

“It has been incredibly frustrating to these families, who have watched and waited to see what will happen,” McMahon said.

McMahon’s office is now dealing with five murder cases that could merit a death sentence for the accused.

He said he would not comment publicly on how his office will proceed on those cases until he has met with the family members of the victims in each of those cases. He said he would announce his decision on those cases later this month.

• Illinois Statehouse News contributed to this report.

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