How Often Did the Illinois Supreme Court Reverse Death Penalty Judgments (Part 1)?

by Sedgwick LLP

This week, we begin a dual project on the Illinois Supreme Court Review and the California Supreme Court Review – comparing the two states’ experience with automatic appeals of death penalty verdicts.

Illinois has had a tumultuous recent history with death penalty verdicts.  Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in 1999, citing concern that the system was condemning the innocent.  Governor Ryan commuted more than 160 death sentences in 2003 to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  But it wasn’t until 2011 that Governor Pat Quinn finally signed the bill abolishing the death penalty once and for all – making Illinois the 16th state to end the death penalty.

During the era when Illinois had the death penalty, all death sentences were automatically appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.  In Table 526 below, we track the year-by-year number of death sentence opinions handed down by the Supreme Court.  In 1990, the Court decided fifteen death cases.  In 1991, the total was down to 13.  The following year, the number spiked to 23, but the Court then decided 13 in 1993 and 17 in 1994.  In 1995, the Court decided 18 death penalty cases. In 1996, the Court decided twenty cases.

In Table 527, we report the reversal rate for the death penalty cases, divided into three categories: partial reversals with the death penalty left in place; partial reversals with the death penalty reversed; and complete reversals.

In 1990, only 46.67% of death cases resulted in a complete affirmance.  Partial reversals with the death penalty vacated accounted for another 13.33% of the cases, and forty percent of the cases resulted in a complete reversal.  In 1991, 84.62% of cases were completely affirmed.  The Court vacated the penalty in partial reversals for 15.38% of the cases.  In 1992, complete reversals were back down to 56.52% of the cases.  The Court partially reversed leaving the penalty in place in 13.04% of the cases, and partially reversed vacating the penalty in another 17.39%.  The Court reversed outright in 13.04% of the death penalty decisions.

In 1993, the Court affirmed in 69.23% of cases.  The Court partially reversed vacating the penalty in 15.38%, partially reversed leaving the penalty in placed in 7.69%, and completely reversed 7.69% of the time.  In 1994, only 58.82% of the Court’s cases were completely affirmed.  Partial reversals with penalty vacated and complete reversals were tied at 17.65% of the cases apiece.  The Court partially reversed leaving the penalty in place in 5.88% of its decisions.  In 1995, the Court affirmed outright in 72.22% of its death cases.  The Court reversed outright 22.22% of the time, and partially reversed, vacating the penalty, in another 5.56%.  Finally, in 1996, the Court affirmed outright in 55% of cases.  The Court partially reversed affirming the penalty in 20%, partially reversed vacating the penalty 10% of the time, and reversed outright in 15% of cases.

We review the declining number of death penalty opinions for the years 1997 through 2003 in Table 528.  The Court decided fourteen cases in 1997 and nineteen in 1998.  The number dipped to six in 1999 before increasing to 17 in 2000.  From that time through the 2011 abolition, the number of death penalty decisions was down continuously.  IN 2001, the Court decided only seven cases.  In 2002, the Court decided five death penalty cases, and in 2003, only three.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Kevin Dooley (no changes).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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