Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

Illinois Murder Jurisprudence in the Absence of Capital Punishment

Academic journal article Ave Maria Law Review

Illinois Murder Jurisprudence in the Absence of Capital Punishment

Article excerpt

On March 9, 2011, the State of Illinois became the sixteenth state to outlaw capital punishment. (1) Governor Pat Quinn, in commenting on his decision, stated: "[O]ur 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." (2) His comment is well founded in fact. The reason for this is that Illinois has experienced a capital punishment error rate of 5.9% in the forty-odd years since the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia declared that the existing system of capital punishment practices was cruel and unusual for producing arbitrary and capricious results. (3) Currently, Illinois' murder statute combines aspects of the Pennsylvania Approach and the Model Penal Code, dividing murder into degrees and assigning different levels of punishment to each, but making the distinction depend upon aggravating and mitigating factors instead of the traditional premeditation/deliberation analysis. (4) This approach is superior, in many ways, to both the approaches upon which it is based, but it still has its own difficulties. Now, with the death sentence off the table, the complexity of the system has become outdated and counter-productive. Therefore, for the sake of consistency and judicial economy, Illinois should follow the example of other states, such as Texas: abandon the Pennsylvania Approach, and adopt a simplified statutory scheme that is more like the approach promulgated in the Model Penal Code.

This Note will begin with a historical survey of murder jurisprudence. First, it will consider the common law origins of murder as a felony and the way in which the Pennsylvania Approach altered the common law to limit the application of the death penalty by separating criminal homicide into categories and degrees. Next, this Note will delve into the Model Penal Code approach in an effort to show how the Code sought to simplify murder jurisprudence and impose utilitarian values upon the justice system. Then, this Note will turn to the current state of the law in Illinois, showing how Illinois employs some aspects of both the Pennsylvania Approach and the Model Penal Code. Finally, this Note will look at Illinois law in light of the State's recent abolition of the death penalty and consider what, if any, changes ought to be made to Illinois' murder statutes. In particular, this Note will consider whether or not there is any viable justification for maintaining a complicated homicide scheme that divides murder into degrees, and ultimately, this Note will reject the viability of said justifications, concluding that there is no reason to maintain the current, graded scheme of murder in Illinois.

I. MURDER AT COMMON LAW AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE PENNSYLVANIA APPROACH

"At common law, murder was defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with 'malice aforethought.'" (5) The actus reus element of common law murder is not very difficult to determine, the question being simply whether the criminal defendant acted in such a way as to cause the death of another. As such, the vast majority of litigation in murder prosecutions focused upon the mens rea requirement. However, deciding whether a person acted with "malice aforethought" proved problematic. Over time, it became an "arbitrary symbol" for judges, creating confusion and unpredictability. (6) Generally speaking, malice aforethought was considered to encompass four distinct states of mind: intent to kill, intent to cause grievous injury, depraved-heart murder, and intent to commit a felony. (7) Therefore, the scope of malice aforethought was extremely broad at common law. Considering the death penalty was mandatory in all cases of common law murder, it was executed far more frequently than it is today. (8)

The broad application of the death penalty at common law proved problematic as social perspectives on capital punishment changed in the eighteenth century. …

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