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EDITORIAL: A potential death penalty problem for Illinois, brought on by the Trump administration

After a disastrous experience with the death penalty, Illinois was wise to dispense with it. But now authorities might be able do a work-around by charging defendants with federal crimes.

An inmate is led out of his cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California, in 2016. California now is among four states to have a moratorium on executing inmates.
An inmate is led out of his cell on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California in 2016. California now has a death penalty moratorium. Twenty-one states have abolished the death penalty entirely.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

Eight years ago, reformers put an end to the death penalty in Illinois. After watching a parade of men who were sentenced to death but turned out to be innocent, the Legislature and former Gov. Pat Quinn abolished capital punishment.

But now there might be a way for authorities here to use the federal government to execute inmates through the back door. And that would be a slap at justice.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently announced the federal government would resume executions of death row inmates in federal prison — something that hasn’t happened since 2003. Five executions are set to take place in coming months, starting in December.

Barr’s action could encourage prosecutors in Illinois to move cases into the federal system to get around the death penalty ban.

Brendt Christensen, the man convicted of killing University of Illinois student Yingying Zhang, for example, faced a trip to federal death row this summer because authorities opted to charge him in federal court instead of state court, where cases like his typically are tried. A downstate jury opted to sentence him to life in prison without possibility of release.

Christensen’s case illustrates how prosecutors can find ways to move cases into federal courts if they wish. They can say a defendant used the mails, crossed state lines or, as in Christensen’s case, used the internet to help him commit his crime.

Moving cases into the federal system just to get a death sentence would fly in the face of what a growing number of Americans believe is just. Twenty-one states have abolished capital punishment, and four more have governor-imposed moratoriums. New death sentences have declined 60% since 2000. The trend clearly is toward eliminating the death penalty altogether.

After Barr made his announcement, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced legislation to ban the federal death penalty.

As Rob Warden, a leader in the effort to abolish the Illinois death penalty, said Friday, “The Trump administration is on the wrong side of history.”

Death penalty supporters point to heinous crimes in which the perpetrators are clearly guilty. But since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973, more than 165 people who had been sentenced to death in the United States have been exonerated. Twenty-one of those exonerees were in Illinois.

No one can justify sending that many innocent people to death row.

It’s not as though trials in federal courts are fairer than in state systems, either. They can be plagued by the same problems of false confessions, mistaken eyewitnesses, overly aggressive investigators, witness perjury, manipulative prosecutors and arbitrariness.

Moreover, when state courts fail and sentence innocent people to death, it’s possible for defendants to get a second hearing in federal courts. If federal courts make such mistakes, defendants can’t turn to state courts for help.

Chicago Sun-Times

According to Warden, since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, 75 defendants have been sentenced to death on federal charges. Of those, three have been executed, 13 have been removed from death row and one is awaiting resentencing. Sixty-one are awaiting execution.

The number of capital punishment prosecutions is sure to go up when prosecutors realize the death penalty hiatus is over.

It is telling that Barr cited no carefully researched study as a basis for resuming executions. Possibly, his announcement was designed to meet the whims of his boss, President Donald Trump, a longtime capital punishment supporter.

After a disastrous experience with the death penalty, Illinois was wise to dispense with it.

The Trump administration shouldn’t give authorities here an avenue to bring executions back.

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