Illinois Death Row Officially Shuts down

Seldom is the fate of one man responsible for changing laws in the United States.  But Anthony Porter will have that distinction for the rest of his life.  A life that was fifty hours from ending in late 1998. He had exhausted all of his appeals and his family had made his funeral arrangements.  

However it was not because the Illinois courts believed he was innocent of the murder of two people, but rather  because he tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure he understood what was about to happen to him or why it was going to happen.

Enter Northwestern University Professor David Protess, a private investigator and a team of journalism students.  Ultimately as a team they proved that Anthony Porter was innocent. He spent 15 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.  Mr. Porter walked out of prison a free man on February 5, 1999.  Governor George Ryan sat at the governor’s mansion watching the release on television and wondered how it could have happened.  And so began the end of the death row sentence in Illinois.

In 2000 Governor Ryan declared a stop to death row after numerous death row convictions were overturned. Another man, like Anthony Porter, was declared innocent just 48 hours before being put to death. A total of 13 death sentences were overturned.

Illinois’ death row was emptied three years later when Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison sighting that the death row is “haunted by the demon of error.”  The current governor, Pat Quinn, signed legislation in March that ended the death penalty.

The sentences of fifteen men have been commuted to life in prison without parole.  Fourteen of those are in maximum security prisons, while one is in a medium-high security prison with a mental health facility.  12 men have been executed in Illinois since 1977 when the death penalty was reinstated. Since 1999 none have been executed.

Illinois’ death row is housed at the prison in Pontiac. The prison has become the place where inmates are moved when they are found capable of leaving super-maximum prisons and able to enter less-restrictive programs.  According to Fox News, no decision has been made about the death chamber.  At the moment it sits in Pontiac quiet and empty.

This year, between January and the present time, 25 executions have occurred in nine states. Eight of those were carried out with the drug sodium thiopental. The rest were done using a new drug pentobarbital.