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Prosecutors: We’ve lost leverage without threat of death penalty

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

In 1992, Michael Alfonso shot pregnant hair stylist Sumanear Yang in the head, then dumped her body in Silver Springs State Park near Yorkville.

Nine years later, he killed the assistant manager of a Wheaton McDonald’s, repeatedly shooting her as she lay on the pavement outside.

To Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis, Alfonso was obviously the worst of the worst — a cold-blooded killer, clearly eligible for the death penalty. And Weis was ready to pursue a death penalty case when Alfonso approached prosecutors with a deal. Afraid of being sentenced to death, he’d give full, detailed confessions if prosecutors took the death penalty off the table.

Yang’s family wanted the details more than death for Alfonso, so Weis accepted Alfonso’s proposal.

For Weis, it was a satisfactory conclusion. Alfonso will never get out of prison and the victims’ families got the answers they wanted. Plus, the courts were spared years of trials with uncertain outcomes. To Weis, that all hinged on Alfonso’s fear of the ultimate punishment.

With Gov. Pat Quinn signing legislation to abolish the death penalty Wednesday, prosecutors are wondering if they’ve lost a tool. Local state’s attorneys agreed that the death penalty shouldn’t be a bargaining chip, but they also realize defendants still see it that way.

“Most people fear death more than life; and most, when facing that, will take a second look,” Weis said.

Local cases affected

Most immediately, Quinn’s decision means three local men on death row had their death sentences commuted to life in prison.

Five other area men were convicted of murder, or facing death-penalty-eligible charges. Since the death penalty ban does not take effect until July 1, some of those men could theoretically be sentenced to death.

Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon wanted to talk to victims’ families before publicly announcing his plans for cases that could go to trial or sentencing before July 1.

“I want them to hear from me first what our plans are,” he said. “That’s only appropriate. I don’t think it would be fair for them to read it in the newspaper.”

Unanimously, local state’s attorneys condemned Quinn’s decision to abolish the death penalty and again clear death row.

“Today is a victory for murderers across Illinois,” said DuPage County State’s Attorney Bob Berlin. “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.”

Most prosecutors said there is not a process for de-certifying the cases. The cases will simply proceed with one less option in the sentencing phase.

Prosecutors said the reforms involving death penalty cases over the last 10 years gave them confidence in the system. The fact that some people originally sentenced to death row had been freed showed the system works.

“That’s the checks and balances working,” Weis said. “That’s why (these cases) take so long. When you have the ultimate punishment, you should have the ultimate review.”

Delayed decision, action

Even if they’re disappointed with Quinn’s decision, local prosecutors were happy to finally have an answer. The General Assembly passed the bill in January, but the governor took nearly two months deciding whether to veto or sign it. In the meantime, dozens of cases were caught in limbo.

“That’s one of the very frustrating things about the governor’s failure to act,” McMahon said.

In Kane County, an Aurora man had been found death penalty eligible. But McMahon decided to delay sentencing until after the governor acted.

Jury selection began in a DuPage County death penalty case the same day the General Assembly passed the death penalty ban. Laurence Lovejoy of Naperville was facing a second trial for the murder of his stepdaughter, Waubonsie Valley High School sophomore Erin Justice. Lovejoy had previously been convicted and sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

This time, jurors decided Lovejoy was not eligible for death. Afterward, defense attorneys pointed out that when two juries can look at the same set of facts and come to two different death-penalty decisions, it was cause for concern.

Berlin said during jury selection several people asked about the pending legislation. He wasn’t sure if that played a role in the jurors’ decision.

“I don’t know how much of a factor it was,” he said. “It was certainly an issue in several jurors’ minds.”

Going forward, prosecutors will now have to work in a modified system. It will likely mean that the former death penalty cases will move through the system much faster. And Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow hopes the resources that had been put toward death penalty cases can be used elsewhere.

“Expeditiously decertifying these death penalty cases will immediately stop the funneling of previous taxpayer dollars into the pockets of defense attorneys and channel the money instead toward services for the families of homicide victims and police training,” he said.

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