Last Person to Receive Illinois Death Penalty Was Greek

Before he was executed on March 17, 1999, convicted murderer Andrew Kokoraleis sat in his cell and wrote a note to his spiritual adviser, Demetrios Kantzavelos, who was then the chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago.

Two days later, the card arrived.

It was very haunting, now-Bishop Kantzavelos said. He thanked me for everything I had done for him, and he wrote that perhaps God might use his execution to finally end all executions in Illinois.

No one has been put to death in this state in the decade since Kokoraleis died by lethal injection. On Thursday, death penalty opponents — including Kantzavelos and members of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — plan to hold a rally at the state Capitol to support a bill that would abolish capital punishment. The bill passed a House committee last Wednesday — the first abolition bill to make it to the House floor since 2003.

I tried to see [then] Gov. Ryan to see if he would delay the execution to study the system, Kantzavelos said. He would not have a meeting. I was very bitter about it. Andrew would be alive today if his execution had been delayed.

Kokoraleis was convicted of mutilating and murdering 21-year-old Lorraine Borowski, who was abducted in 1982 on her way to work at a real estate office in West suburban Elmhurst. Her body was later found in a cemetery. Prosecutors said he was involved in more than a dozen other murders of area women.

More than nine months after Kokoraleis was executed, in January 2000, Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions that remains in effect. Gov. Quinn has said he will not lift the moratorium.

In 2003, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 Illinois Death Row inmates to life in prison without parole. Since then, Kantzavelos has been even more active in the anti-death penalty movement.

The Byzantine empire outlawed the death penalty in the sixth century, he said. I live every day with the prayer that Andrews dying wish will be granted.

Since Kokoraleis execution, there has been a dramatic shift in the imposition of the death penalty across the nation, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

It seems clear that the issue of innocence has played a pivotal role, Dieter said. There were 306 death sentences in 1998, a typical year for that decade. In 2007, the number of death sentences dropped to 115 — a 62 percent decline.

The issue of innocence was played out more publicly and emphatically in Illinois than anywhere else in the country, Dieter said. From exonerations resulting from journalistic investigations, to the national conference at Northwestern in 1998, to the declaration of the moratorium … Illinois has been at the center of the innocence revolution.

Dieters center lists 130 Death Row exonerations since 1973, including 17 in which DNA evidence played a crucial role. In Illinois, 12 defendants had been released from Death Row by the time Kokoraleis was executed. In 2003, Ryan pardoned four more.

In 1999, there were 98 executions nationwide, but only 37 in 2008. Thirty-five of those were in Southern states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Florida, among others.

And after increasing every year since the death penalty was reinstated nationally in 1976, the number of people on Death Rows has dropped since 1999, Dieter said.

Two states, New Jersey and New York, have recently abandoned the death penalty. Other states, such as Montana and New Mexico, are considering outlawing capital punishment.

Many reforms were proposed in Illinois after the moratorium. Only a fraction became law — most notably the establishment of a capital litigation fund, training and certification for prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the introduction of videotaping of interrogations in murder investigations.

Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Sullivan, who was a member of the commission that proposed the Illinois reforms, also heads a committee formed to study the impact of the changes. There isnt sufficient data to assess the success or failure of the post-moratorium death-penalty system, he said. But the sheer numbers show that the number of death sentences that have been returned has decreased dramatically, he said. Currently, there are 15 defendants on Death Row in Illinois.

The imposition of the death penalty has slowed significantly, statistics show. During 2006 and 2007, the cases of 105 defendants who at one time faced the death penalty were resolved.

Prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in 62 of the cases and sought the ultimate punishment in 43 cases. Six people were sentenced to death — three in Cook County and one each in Will, DuPage and Hancock counties.

Of the 37 remaining cases, 32 defendants were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 28 years to life in prison without parole. One defendant was convicted of a less-serious offense than murder. Four were acquitted.

While the number of death sentences is down sharply, Sullivan believes the death penalty is still being used as a threat by prosecutors to obtain plea bargains. Sullivan also thinks that prosecutors in rural counties seek the death penalty so funding for the case will come from the state-funded capital defense budget, rather than from individual county treasuries.

Ultimately, though, Sullivan believes the cases are better defended, he said. The playing field has been leveled to some degree. And so the state is seeking the death penalty less often.

The Chicago Sun-Times published the above on March 7, 2009.