SPRINGFIELD, Ill., March 7 (UPI) -- Just weeks after former Gov. George Ryan emptied death row, an Illinois House committee has approved a bill banning executions, despite bleak prospects for approval in the full House and a promised gubernatorial veto.
Executions had been on hold for three years before Ryan granted mass clemency to more than 150 men and women on death row Jan. 11. A single prisoner, Anthony Mertz, currently awaits lethal injection, convicted and sentenced to death last month in the mutilation-murder of a 21-year-old Eastern Illinois University co-ed.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 Thursday to abolish capital punishment, which was reinstated in Illinois in 1977. Sponsor Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, acknowledged, however, the measure has a long way to go.
"I would classify this as a conscience vote. People do their own thing," said Steve Brown, a spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan.
When Ryan issued his blanket commutation, he cited the Legislature, in part, for not pursuing recommended reforms suggested by a blue-ribbon commission. Ryan said he acted because more death row inmates had been exonerated of crimes than had been put to death.
Ryan's successor, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has said he does not favor scrapping the death penalty but agrees reforms are necessary.
Former death row inmate Aaron Patterson, who was pardoned by Ryan, urged lawmakers to dispose of the death penalty. Patterson confessed to a double homicide after police tortured him.
"The whole world is watching," Patterson testified. "I hope I don't have to take a Bible and hit them over the head with it. But sometimes they need a rude awakening, like Jesus had in the temple."
Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, said he favors abolishing the death penalty but said he doubts the bill approved Thursday will make it out of the House and if it does, it will have little chance in the Senate, especially in light of a package of reforms now making its way through the legislative process.
Illinois executed 12 convicted prisoners since 1990, while 13 others were exonerated by DNA and other evidence before Ryan imposed the moratorium. Ryan then pardoned four other death row inmates, including Patterson, just one day before he issued his blanket clemency.