Additionally, Quinn commuted the sentences of all 15 death row inmates. They will now spend life in prison without possibility of parole, he said in a news conference Wednesday after signing the legislation.
"This is the most difficult decision that I've made as governor. It was made after many days and nights of reflection and review," Quinn said at the news conference.
The governor signed the bill in a private ceremony Wednesday.
"I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims' families in overcoming their pain and grief," he said.
The bill was passed by the General Assembly back in January, and for weeks, Quinn has delayed signing or vetoing it as he listed to opinions on both sides of the issue.
Among those who publicly lobbied the governor to keep the death penalty in place are Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and a coalition of murder victims' families.
Quinn has also heard from anti-death penalty advocates as well as wrongfully convicted individuals who have been released from death row.
He said the system is just too flawed, costly and unfair to remain in place.
"I think that we're on the right side of history here," said State Rep. Karen Yarboro, a co-sponsor of the death penalty ban legislation. "I'm thankful for Gov. Quinn's actions today, and how he stood resolute and said this is the law of the land."
"God bless the state of Illinois," said Sen. Kwame Raoul (D), the bill's other co-sponsor.
Some victims' relatives who oppose the death penalty said singling out crimes is inherently unfair.
"There is so much discrimination in the death penalty just towards the victims' families, saying yours rises to this level and yours does not," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, relative of murder victim.
"Most horrendous murderers would rather take life in prison than the death penalty and to get them to talk and confess, we need this," said Cindy McNamara whose daughter was murdered.
Among the harshest critics are prosecutors. In a statement DuPage County state's attorney Robert Berlin said, "today is a victory for murderers across Illinois. Violent offenders can now murder police officers, kill victims during forcible felonies, kill multiple victims, and kill witnesses without fear of receiving the death penalty."
Republican state lawmakers say that the governor didn't give reform a chance. They also say they'll try to pass legislation to reserve the death penalty in extreme cases.
"I believe a majority of Illinoisans believe that we should continue the death penalty for the worst of the worst," said Sen. Kirk Dillard (R), Naperville.
"I stand here to say that our system is not broken. It was broken at one point, but we did our job and it was fixed," said Rep. Jim Durkin (R), Western Springs.
But former death row inmate Randy Steidl called capital punishment a system beyond repair.
"Even if they do everything on the up and up and think they've got the right guy, there is still that possibility that you're going to send an innocent man to his death," said Steidl.
Quinn has said he personally favored the death penalty for the worst of offenders. It is rare that anyone is put to death in Illinois due to a moratorium put in place in 2000.
The bill takes effect July 1 except for Section 15 (Capital Crimes Litigation Act), which takes effect January 1, 2012.
For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death. This was not a decision to be made lightly, or a decision that I came to without deep personal reflection.
Since the General Assembly passed this bill, I have met or heard from a wide variety of people on both sides of the issue. I have talked with prosecutors, judges, elected officials, religious leaders from around the world, families of murder victims, people on death row who were exonerated and ordinary citizens who have taken the time to share their thoughts with me. Their experiences, words and opinions have made a tremendous impact on my thinking, and I thank everyone who reached out on this matter.
After their guidance, as well as much thought and reflection, I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.
As a state, we cannot tolerate the executions of innocent people because such actions strike at the very legitimacy of a government. Since 1977, Illinois has seen 20 people exonerated from death row. Seven of those were exonerated since the moratorium was imposed in 2000. That is a record that should trouble us all. To say that this is unacceptable does not even begin to express the profound regret and shame we, as a society, must bear for these failures of justice.
Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it. With our broken system, we cannot ensure justice is achieved in every case. For the same reason, I have also decided to commute the sentences of those currently on death row to natural life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole or release.
I have found no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on the crime of murder and that the enormous sums expended by the state in maintaining a death penalty system would be better spent on preventing crime and assisting victims' families in overcoming their pain and grief.
To those who say that we must maintain a death penalty for the sake of the victims' families, I say that it is impossible not to feel the pain of loss that all these families share or to understand the desire for retribution that many may hold. But, as I heard from family members who lost loved ones to murder, maintaining a flawed death penalty system will not bring back their loved ones, will not help them to heal and will not bring closure to their pain. Nothing can do that. We must instead devote our resources toward the prevention of crime and the needs of victims' families, rather than spending more money to preserve a flawed system.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin observed, "[i]n a complex, sophisticated democracy like ours, means other than the death penalty are available and can be used to protect society." In our current criminal justice system, we can impose extremely harsh punishments when warranted. Judges can impose sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Where necessary and appropriate, the state can incarcerate convicted criminals in maximum security prisons. These means should be sufficient to satisfy our need for retribution, justice and protection.
As Governor, I took an oath to uphold our state's Constitution and faithfully execute our laws. Honoring that oath often requires making difficult decisions, but I have found none to be as difficult as the one I made today. I recognize that some may strongly disagree with this decision, but I firmly believe that we are taking an important step forward in our history as Illinois joins the 15 other states and many nations of the world that have abolished the death penalty.
Here is a current list of death row inmates:
Anthony Mertz Coles
Ricardo Harris Cook
Teodoro Baez Cook
Cecil Sutherland Jefferson
Andrew Urdiales Cook
Joseph Bannister Cook
Paul Runge Cook
Dion Banks Cook
Gary Pate White
Daniel Ramsey Hancock
Eric Hanson DuPage
Rodney Adkins Cook
David Damm Jo-Daviess
Brian Dugan DuPage
Edward Tenney DuPage