When Rep. Karen Yarbrough, 7th District state representative (including parts of Oak Park and River Forest), attended a rally in Oak Park on the campaign trail more than a decade ago, she wasn’t expecting to have her views on the death penalty challenged. In fact, at the time she hadn’t yet committed to an official position on the issue. She simply hadn’t made up her mind.
But listening to local anti-death penalty activists speak out against an unjust system, she found herself agreeing, and once elected, began her own crusade against the system she believed to be fatally flawed.
Last week, she watched over Gov. Quinn’s shoulder as he signed a bill that abolished the death penalty in the state of Illinois, and subsequently commuted the sentences of 15 Death Row inmates.
“I am the chief house sponsor of this bill, and so I introduced this bill. I’ve been working on this bill for the last couple of years and prior to that, I supported it. … This bill has been in the house for a very, very long time,” Yarbrough said last week. “This process of working on this particular measure certainly has been long, but at the end of the day, we did get a victory,” she said.
It’s a victory that has strong roots in Oak Park and River Forest.
Yarbrough credits local activist Pat McAnany with helping her reach a final decision.
“Going to that rally, it just made me want to know more. Pat really encouraged me,” she said, recalling the laundry list of objections she heard at the event. “They wanted to get rid of the death penalty because it was arbitrary and capricious, and they don’t pick the right people to execute, it’s not a deterrent, and it costs a lot of money to prosecute those cases,” said Yarbrough.
McAnany said his fight against the death penalty began closer to home. “My wife nagged me,” he said of his initial reason for getting involved. A lawyer who taught in the criminal justice program at University of Illinois at Chicago, McAnany said his wife, Charlene, felt he had the goods to make a solid case against the death penalty and encouraged his activism.
He, too, recalls that Oak Park rally where he met Yarbrough as a turning point in his quest. “That was the beginning of my real involvement,” he said.
McAnany has since been actively involved with the West Suburban Committee Against Capital Punishment, and spent time as both a board member and board president for the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (ICADP), joining another long-running force against the death penalty that originated with an Oak Parker.
McAnany said founder Mary Alice Rankin had a profound influence on the abolition effort. “She was raised in a conservative Republican household,” he said, and her arguments held weight because she wasn’t some “bleeding heart liberal.”
She was extremely warm and personable, according to her son Stephen, but had a strong-willed alter-ego. “People considered her very polite,” he said, “but she was kind of ruthless.” Not unkind, just efficient, he said. She launched the ICADP in response to the 1977 reinstatement of the death penalty.
It would be 35 years from the time she founded the coalition to the day Quinn inked the bill to end Illinois executions. Rankin died in the early 1990s, so she didn’t live to see it, but her family said that didn’t matter so much.
“I don’t think it was about her lifetime,” said Stephen Rankin. “She knew it was uncivilized for the nation state to be taking the lives of people.” And while in the beginning, her son said few people paid attention to her protests, her unwavering dedication to the cause injected the movement with momentum, and the notion of abolition seemed more and more possible. By the time she died, he said, “she had every confidence that that would happen.”
Another turning point came more than a decade ago, when former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in the state, commuted death sentences for more than 150 prisoners on Death Row, and pardoned four Death Row inmates.
His decision was, at least in part, due to several high-profile wrongful conviction cases, which nearly sent innocent men to the death chamber. Oak Park’s David Protess, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism and director of the Medill Innocence Project, was partly responsible, along with his students, for bringing to light the truth behind the shoddy convictions.
“My students, under my direction, have been investigating wrongful convictions since 1993, and during that period of time we have developed evidence that freed 11 innocent prisoners, five of whom had been on Death Row,” Protess said of the project, which has since prompted numerous similar organizations nationwide.
“The most important case we’re know for, in terms of a death penalty decision … was the case of Anthony Porter, who came within 50 hours of execution. We saved his life. We solved the crime. We got the recantation of the state’s star witness against Porter. We found a true eyewitness to the crime who said it was her husband who was the killer. And then the husband confessed to us on videotape. Anthony Porter was freed on Feb. 5, 1999,” Protess said. The next year, the governor instituted the moratorium.
“It was this sense of injustice,” recalled Stephen Rankin, that motivated his mother in her quest for abolition. “You have this massive power of the state, which can make huge mistakes, which it does,” he said. “The state being all powerful and playing God is not an appropriate thing.”
He said the mood in his family was buoyant when they received the news of the death-penalty repeal. “As soon as I found out I sent out this broadcast e-mail to my [five] siblings, and to my kids too. … We’re ecstatic. We’re just so pleased,” Rankin said. “What she did with the coalition was part of who she was,” he said of his mother’s legacy.
Protess said he’d notified most of his current and former Innocence Project students about the repeal as of late last week. “They think it’s just really cool that they’ve not only been able to help save lives, but change the law,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say our sentiment is that we went to bed on Wednesday night knowing that innocent persons will never again be sentenced to death in the state of Illinois. And that is a very good feeling.”
McAnany’s reaction was slightly more subdued: “I am a person who takes the long view, and I know that any time a terrible crime like murder is committed in Illinois, we could have the legislature voting to reinstate the death penalty. That could happen,” he said. “I’m not of the view that this is some grand deliverance. I’m of the view we’ve taken a step. It’s an important step — it could be reversed — but we’ve taken a step, and I think that that’s the wave of the future. I think that’s where things are going. So I feel good about it.”