SPRINGFIELD — In the wake of recent deaths of first responders in the line of duty, Illinois Republicans are pushing to reinstate the death penalty as a way to toughen punishment for people who intentionally kill police officers, firefighters or other public workers.
Several Republican lawmakers have filed bills that would make the death penalty a possible sentence for people convicted in the first-degree murder of police officers, firefighters or case workers at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). They argue partially reversing Illinois’ 2011 abolition of the death penalty could be a deterrent to stop people from killing first responders.
“I feel very strongly this could be a mechanism that actually could deter crime,” Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) said. “Because if somebody kills any of these folks, the penalty may be their own death.”
McCombie is pushing a bill (HB4637) that would make the death penalty a possible sentence for anyone convicted of willfully killing a police officer, firefighters, private security officer or employees of DCFS or the Department of Aging while working in their official capacities. She argues her proposal is a clean-up bill that gives DCFS and Department of Aging employees the same legal protections as other first responders.
“Somehow, it missed including DCFS case workers and Department of Aging investigators,” McCombie said. “Both of those folks are out in the field in very volatile positions.”
Two DCFS employees have been murdered on the job in recent years. Case worker Pam Knight was killed in 2017 in Carroll County by the father of a child she was trying to remove from the father’s custody. In January, Deidre Silas was stabbed to death at a Sangamon County home.
Republicans also want to create harsher penalties following recent murders of Illinois police officers. In 2021, five Illinois officers were murdered in the line of duty.
Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) is proposing legislation (SB3899) that would instate the death penalty for people who kill police officers.
“This bill is a first step towards restoring the respect towards law enforcement that Springfield and even some members of our media have taken away,” Bailey said in a news conference in January. “This legislation comes after a long line of law enforcement officers were murdered or critically wounded in the line of duty.”
Bailey appeared with Amber Oberheim, the wife of Champaign Police Officer Chris Oberheim, who was murdered during a domestic violence call last year. She said her husband didn’t get a choice the night he was murdered, but Illinois lawmakers have a choice on how they want to respond to his death and that choice shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“Trust me, my husband’s killer did not stop and ask him if he was Democrat or Republican before he shot him three times,” Amber Oberheim said at the news conference with Bailey.
Conversations about restoring the death penalty are not limited within the Republican party. Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) said he is getting calls from constituents asking him to support the death penalty for people who kill children. He said he is not necessarily in favor the death penalty, noting how it has historically been a problem for people of color, but he said is interested in the idea of life sentences for child killers.
“We have to have strong messages and strong laws on the books to give pause to people who might just shoot randomly,” Ford said. “There has to be a message out there that killing a child is unacceptable.”
Illinois’ death penalty was repealed in 2011 eight years after former Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all Illinois inmates on death row. Former Illinois Innocence Project Director John Hanlon, a death penalty expert who represented several former death row inmates in appeals, said the death penalty is a “proven failure.”
“Deterrence is a logical thought process … very often, crimes at this level — there’s not a whole lot of logical thinking going on. So deterrence doesn’t occur — it doesn’t apply,” he said.
The death penalty has also proven too be too much of a risk for the wrongfully convicted, Hanlon said. Since the mid-1990s Illinois executed 21 people, while 12 other death row inmates were set free. To Hanlon, that shows there is too much of a risk that innocent people will be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.
“The problems that cause wrongful convictions still exist because of human beings who are not perfect,” Hanlon said.
Illinois sentenced almost 300 people to death while it was an option, according to Northwestern University. Of those, 20 were exonerated.
McCombie said she believes today’s technology could help avoid wrongful convictions and she trusts prosecutors and judges will be able make fair decisions about the death penalty.
“I think with body camera footage and security footage everywhere, I think the judicial system will have a check and balance,” McCombie said.
Ford acknowledges the death penalty’s history of wrongful convictions, especially in his own community, but that’s why it’s important to have conversations with members of the community and other lawmakers about whether the death penalty will really be a crime deterrent, he said.
“It gives us an opportunity to say right now, ‘OK, you want to talk about the death penalty, then let’s talk about the criminal justice system that’s totally biased,’” Ford said. “It’s a perfect way to bring Republicans to the table.”
As for what will reduce crime, Hanlon said several strategies can be looked at, but the death penalty is not an option.
“The statistics are really clear: the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent,” Hanlon said.
Hanlon offered life in prison might be a stronger deterrent to crime because it usually means someone will spend significantly more time behind bars with the same result.
“Which is worse punishment: 15 years in prison and you come out dead [after being executed] or 40 years and you come out dead?” Hanlon said.
There’s no single solution to crime, Ford said.
“The truth is, there’s a law for every crime anyone can commit,” he said. “The question we should be looking at is how we could be smarter about it.”
Ford isn’t sold locking people up is a solution either and believes it may even contribute to the problem.
“It’s never made our streets safer,” Ford said. “What it’s done is lock people up, ruin their lives for nonviolent offenses and actually made people more violent. People who were charged with nonviolent offenses became unemployable which led some people to a life of crime.”
But while she believes reinstating the death penalty could help prevent crimes in Illinois, McCombie admits she has mixed feelings about it too.
“I don’t know how I feel about the death penalty as a whole,” she said. “I know I’m pro-life — that’s easy.”