• U.S.

No Death Penalty for Chicago Murders

4 minute read
Eric Ferkenhoff/Chicago

In the first state to declare a moratorium on executions, the sentence handed down Thursday by an Illinois jury in the notorious Brown’s restaurant murder case shouldn’t have been all that surprising.The state jury rejected the death penalty against one of two men accused in the gruesome 1993 murders of seven restaurant workers outside Chicago, a decision that amounted to a major defeat for the area’s top prosecutor. What is perhaps more surprising was how some of the very families whose loved ones were slain considered the sentence a victory.

In the days leading up to the penalty phase of the trial, some of the victims’ families stood in a seemingly awkward alliance with the family of Juan Luna, the man convicted of the crime, denouncing the death penalty as an inhumane punishment. Thursday evening they got their wish. The verdict took only two hours of deliberation, and it ensures that Luna, convicted last Thursday after a 14-day trial, will spend the remainder of his life in prison. James Degorski, the second man charged in the case, one of Illinois’ longest-running murder mysteries and worst massacres, is expected to go on trial soon. Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine, who argued part of the case and pleaded with jurors to impose death during the verdict stage over the last two days, told reporters he “respected” the decision.

The Brown’s case laid bare the strange state of limbo in Illinois’ criminal justice system. Though Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich has continued the landmark moratorium on carrying out executions imposed in 2000 by his Republican predecessor George Ryan, 11 men have been sent to death row since Ryan cleared it out as he left office in 2003 — and prosecutors in the state still plan to seek the ultimate punishment when they feel it fits the crime.

The state has made some reforms to try and ensure that people don’t end up wrongly convicted and sentenced for crimes they didn’t commit — the original impetus for Ryan’s moratorium. In addition to instituting more court oversight in the last few years, it has provided better training for lawyers in capital cases, more stringent guidelines for what qualifies for death, and put a closer watch on the police investigating and prosecutors trying these cases. Perhaps most importantly, it has set up a fund to even the field in cases that have long favored the deep pockets of the state doing battle with poorly trained, poorly paid and poorly funded public defender offices. The fund, according to the Illinois treasurer’s office, stands at roughly $4.5 million. Of that, more than a quarter — $1.6 million — has been withdrawn.

“It’s not only not a perfect system, the death penalty accomplishes nothing,” says Rob Warden, who heads up the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Law School. “Quite the contrary. It doesn’t deter crime, and it’s very costly. Not just financially, but socially. We have some evidence in all of the cases where people are currently on death row in this state that the defendants were mentally ill — psychologically, if not legally — and there will be so many appeals and years will pass before these are resolved that couldn’t, actually couldn’t, see an execution in this state for five to seven more years. How much does that cost, in lives and in dollars?”

Some 200 people across the country, many of them on death row, have been exonerated through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, a New York advocacy and litigation firm headed up by Barry Scheck. More than half of the nation’s states have had at least one exoneration. Of those, Illinois, with 27, ranks behind only Texas, with 28, in the total number of exonerations.

None of that, however, is enough to convince prosecutors that the death penalty shouldn’t exist at all. “We respect what the jury has done,” Devine told reporters after the punishment was announced. Perhaps, but his office has already signaled it would again seek death when Degorski goes on trial for his alleged role in the Brown’s restaurant murders.

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