Yesterday, on the eight-year anniversary of the mass commutation of 167 Illinois death sentences by former Governor George Ryan, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. Assuming current Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill--and it is a moral imperative that he do so--Illinois will complete a process that began over ten years ago when Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty because the capital punishment system in Illinois was "broken."
The floor debates last week in the Illinois House and this week in the Illinois Senate were emotional and enlightening, and at times approached great oratory. Those in favor of repeal cited racial bias in the system, geographic disparity in the imposition of death sentences, cost, morality, and the need to join the rest of the civilized world in renouncing this barbaric form of punishment. But by far the most pervasive theme was innocence. The names of Illinois's death row exonerees were read, stories of innocence were shared, and the frequency of wrongful conviction was pronounced too great to permit capital punishment.
When innocence was discussed, no name was mentioned more often than that of Gordon "Randy" Steidl, a longtime Center on Wrongful Convictions client who was exonerated after serving more than 12 years on death row and more than 17 total years in prison. Randy tirelessly advocated and lobbied for repeal of the death penalty, and he was present when both votes were taken. House Sponsor Karen Yarbrough introduced him to her colleagues and invited them to apologize to him; Senate Sponsor Kwame Raoul repeatedly invoked Randy's name and gestured to him while summing up the arguments in favor of repeal. There is no more eloquent, compelling, and fiercely passionate opponent of the death penalty than Randy Steidl, and this legislative victory belongs to him as much as to anyone else.
As death penalty opponents anxiously await Governor Quinn's signature on the abolition bill, Randy awaits Governor Quinn's signature on an equally important document. In 2002, while still in prison, Randy filed a clemency petition with Governor Ryan, seeking an innocence pardon to relieve him of the two wrongful murder convictions that sent him to death row. In the crush of death penalty clemency petitions filed at the end of Governor Ryan's term, Randy's request was overlooked. After Randy's release from prison in 2004 on a federal writ of habeas corpus, he renewed his request with Governor Blagojevich. Again, his petition remained untouched on the Governor's desk. Last month, Governor Quinn pardoned numerous people who had filed clemency petititions in 2003 and 2004, but Randy's petition was passed over once more. Although Illinois lawmakers recognize that Randy Steidl is an innocent man who was wronged by the system, he has not been officially exonerated nor has he received one penny of State compensation.
It would be just, and fitting, if Governor Quinn's next act after signing the death penalty abolition bill would be to grant Randy Steidl an official pardon based on his innocence.
To learn more about Randy's case, please see the Center's summary: Summary of the Randy Steidl case