| Haunted by the demon of error
Our systemic case-by-case review has found more cases of innocent men wrongfully sentenced to death row than the other way round. Because our three-year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious — and therefore immoral — I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.
I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.
The legislature couldn’t reform it. Lawmakers won’t repeal it. But I will not stand for it.
I must act.
Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. Because of all of these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.
This is a blanket commutation. I realize it will draw ridicule, scorn and anger from many who oppose this decision. They will say I am usurping the decisions of judges and juries and state legislators. But as I have said, the people of our state have vested in me to act in the interest of justice. Even if the exercise of my power becomes my burden I will bear it. Our constitution compels it. I sought this office, and even in my final days of holding it, I cannot shrink from the obligations to justice and fairness that it demands.
There have been many nights where my staff and I have been deprived of sleep in order to conduct our exhaustive review of the system. But I can tell you this: I will sleep well knowing I made the right decision.
As I said when I declared the moratorium, it is time for a rational discussion on the death penalty. While our experience in Illinois has indeed sparked a debate, we have fallen short of a rational discussion. Yet if I did not take this action, I feared that there would be no comprehensive and thorough inquiry into the guilt of the individuals on death row or of the fairness of the sentences applied.
To say it plainly one more time — the Illinois capital punishment system is broken. It has taken innocent men to a hair’s breadth escape from their unjust execution. Legislatures in the past have refused to fix it. Our new legislature and our new governor must act to rid our state of the shame of threatening the innocent with execution and the guilty with unfairness.
In the days ahead, I will pray that we can open our hearts and provide something for victims’ families other than the hope of revenge. Lincoln once said: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” I can only hope that will be so. God bless you. And God bless the people of Illinois.