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Lawmakers hold committee debate on death penalty
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/19/2008 12:12 AM

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Anthony Mertz has years of future appeals before the condemned man, who has served the longest on Illinois' death row, faces execution for the murder of a college student.

But, as an unofficial moratorium remains, often confusing jurors asked to impose the law, some leaders are spurring public discussion with the hope of settling the controversial issue next year after the election.

State lawmakers listened Thursday to more than three hours of emotional testimony from both sides of the debate during a house judiciary committee in Chicago.

Opponents pushing for an abolition bill argue the death penalty is too arbitrary, costly and just plain morally wrong. They note only about one-third of the suggested 85 systematic reforms are in place since the moratorium was imposed eight years ago.

Illinois is among 36 death penalty states in the United States. Eighteen of the 289 condemned men and women later were exonerated in Illinois, making the state second behind only Florida in documented wrongful convictions.

Of those exonerated, DNA evidence played a major role. Rob Warden of the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions said such evidence is available in only about 15 percent of murder cases.

He asked - how many other innocent people are on death row?

But those in favor of lifting the moratorium and enforcing the death penalty argue just as passionately. Several families of murder victims joined Cook State's Attorney Richard Devine and DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett.

They contend the unofficial moratorium confuses jurors, who don't realize that capital punishment still is law. They also note a reformed system with many safeguards and the high cost of life prison terms.

To counter the other side's morality argument, they question how fair is it that a murderer be allowed to live when the victim cannot. Proponents spoke out against a movement to also abolish mandatory life prison terms. They asked - where will it stop?

In March 2004, 16-year-old Erin Justice was killed in Aurora. Her mother's new husband, Laurence Lovejoy is among 14 men on Illinois' death row.

The slain girl's father, Edreick Justice, said it isn't about revenge; it's about justice.

"There has to be a system of checks and balances," said the father, who held up a photo of Erin, " and it shouldn't come with the luxury of sitting in prison for the rest of your life watching television. I have to forgive Laurence Lovejoy, but that doesn't erase what he did. It doesn't erase the hurt and the pain and the knowledge that he took something not just from me, but from everyone, because Erin was loved by so many."

The last man executed in Illinois was Andrew Kokoraleis, in May 1999, for nearly 20 cultlike mutilation slayings of women in Cook and DuPage in the 1980s.

In late 2002, after declaring a moratorium, former Gov. George Ryan commuted death sentences to life prison terms. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has allowed it to stand, though his hand has not been forced since a scheduled execution has not arisen.

Of the condemned, 32-year-old Mertz is the first to face execution. He was convicted of killing Rolling Meadows native Shannon McNamara, 21, while at Eastern Illinois University in 2001.

"When we abolish capital punishment, we abolish the dignity of the innocent lives taken and the memory of those victims who were slain," said Birkett, also the Illinois State's Attorneys Association president. "We are not lobbyists for the death penalty, but we are advocates for the proper and fair enforcement of all laws, including the death penalty in those rare cases where it is appropriate."

Two men exonerated from Illinois' death row, including Gary Gauger, once accused of his parents' 1993 murders at their McHenry County farm, attended Thursday's hearing.

"In my mind, nothing has changed," Gauger said. "Until you can guarantee the honesty and integrity of police testimony and state's attorneys offices, I don't see how you can put people to death."

Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, sparked the hearing when he and Birkett called upon Blagojevich earlier this year to lift the moratorium. The resolution stalled. As did a Chicago Democrat's annual death-penalty abolition bill.

Reboletti said he is preparing a new bill that proposes additional death penalty reforms, such as reducing the number of eligibility factors, while again seeking an end to the moratorium.