Illinois prosecutors fear 'losing their ace' if Quinn outlaws death penalty

Christopher Coleman is accused of strangling his wife and their two sons in their beds. Nicholas Sheley allegedly committed a rampage that left eight people dead in Illinois and Missouri. Prosecutors say Christopher Vaughn gunned down his wife and three children in the family's sport utility vehicle.

Beyond the fact that all three men claim innocence, the gruesome cases from different parts of Illinois have a binding thread: Prosecutors want each of the accused put to death, but they don't know whether they will be able to pursue that ultimate punishment much longer.

Across the state, prosecutors fear that with the stroke of a pen Gov. Pat Quinn could make their jobs harder if he agrees to sign a measure that would outlaw the death penalty, sparing the 15 inmates on the state's death row and the defendants who prosecutors want to put there.

As Quinn weighs the matter, saying he wants to "follow my conscience" and consult widely, the states' attorneys say the move would rob them of an important bargaining chip -- the threat of death to get guilty pleas from suspects who opt for life in prison. Take that off the table, they say, and there'll be more trials because defendants facing only the prospect of life behind bars would be less inclined to deal.

"When we go to battle in the most serious, heinous cases, we have to have every weapon available to us," said Thomas Gibbons, the state's attorney in Madison County. "Let's say you're playing cards and you lose your ace -- you're one step behind."

Prosecutors also argue that repealing the death penalty would take away their access to the Capital Litigation Trust Fund, the pool of state money that pays for death penalty trials, likely forcing already cash-strapped counties to absorb the entire cost of murder trials. The money would be used instead for services for families of homicide victims and law enforcement training,

There's also the value of an execution to victims' families wanting a measure of justice and closure, prosecutors argue.

"I firmly believe there are certain cases that are so shocking, outrageous and have such an impact on the community that there is no other sentence," said Bob Berlin, a 23-year prosecutor sworn in last month as DuPage County state's attorney.

Quinn, a Democrat who says he supports capital punishment when properly applied, received the bill last month. If he signs the measure, which would take effect July 1, he could commute the sentences of those on death row to life in prison. Or Quinn, whose Roman Catholic church condemns capital punishment, could lift the state's moratorium and allow executions to again begin in Illinois.

Illinois executions have been on hold since former Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on them in 2000. In 2003, Ryan cleared death row of its 171 inmates, commuting most to life in prison and freeing four inmates whose guilt was in doubt. By the time of the moratorium, the state had executed 12 death row inmates since 1977.

Death penalty opponents argue that 20 overturned capital cases since 1977 in Illinois demonstrate the death penalty doesn't work. And they dismiss concerns that counties would bear an additional financial burden with trials if the capital-litigation fund was scrapped, saying that pool covers expenses unique to capital cases -- and that those costs would vanish along with capital punishment.

"The risk of an irreversible error in a capital case simply outweighs any concern about closure," said Rob Warden, director of the Northwestern University Law School Center on Wrongful Convictions. "A couple of generations from now, Americans are going to be as ashamed about the capital punishment era as we are ashamed today about McCarthyism and slavery."

Some believe the legislature's historic passing of the possible death penalty repeal already is affecting some prosecutions.

Earlier this month, Berlin's office lost its pursuit of a death sentence during Laurence Lovejoy's retrial in the Chicago-area killing of his teenage stepdaughter seven years ago. Lovejoy now is eligible for life in prison when sentenced next month.

"Clearly, this was a case where the death penalty was appropriate," and not getting it "was discouraging," said Berlin, noting that the limbo status about capital punishment in Illinois surfaced during jury selection. "A number of jurors were asking, 'Do we even have a death penalty in Illinois?'" he said.

Given the cloudiness, some prosecutors are simply moving on. In Peoria County, State's Attorney Kevin Lyons has been handling murder cases "as if the death penalty does not exist in Illinois," meaning life behind bars would become the harshest punishment for homicide defendants convicted.

"Why would I commence something that I couldn't finish?" Lyons said, clearly irked by bids to scrap the death penalty. "Everybody (backing the measure) wants to say the same thing -- 'I'm for law and order,' but then they want to qualify it. What do you do when a person murders one, then a second, third, fourth and fifth? I guess they're all freebies when all you're going to get is life in prison."