There was certainly no cause when killer Andrew Kokoraleis suffered lethal injection at 12:34 this afternoon to suppose that his would be the last execution in the illustrious history of Illinois.
Against all odds, however, it was the last.
As a member of a satanic murder cult branded the Ripper Crew, he’d participated in abducting, raping, mutilating, murdering, and cannibalizing prostitutes under the charismatic sway of one Robin Gecht.*
The exploits of Gecht, Edward Spreitzer, and brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis in the Dark Lord’s services are nauseatingly recounted at trutv.com and the spellbinding true-crime book Deadly Thrills.
By the time Andrew Kokoraleis’s appeals had wended their way through the courts, it was high tide for capital punishment in the United States: a modern record 98 executions were carried out in 1999; a Texas governor best-known to the general public for his prodigious execution output was lining up the White House bid that would hurl America into much deadlier pastimes; a law stripping condemned prisoners of federal appellate avenues had just been passed with overwhelming support. Even liberal Democrats dared not touch the divisive issue of capital punishment for fear of appearing soft on crime.
Though sub-Texan in its gurney output, the Land of Lincoln was cranking out a consistent 1 to 2 executions per year in the late 1990’s. It had just inaugurated a Republican governor who as a lawmaker had voted to reinstitute that state’s death penalty statute. Illinois held well over 100 death row prisoners, including one of Kokoraleis’s own confederates from the Ripper Crew.
So the 21st century figured to present an ample harvest for the Illinois death chamber.
Even as Ryan’s graft-plagued term was beginning, however, the executioner’s swan song was underway.
Just days into Ryan’s term, a man named Anthony Porter, who had avoided execution by the narrowest of margins the year before, walked out of Illinois death row a free man — exonerated by the efforts of a Northwestern University journalism class.
“I turned to my wife, and I said, how the hell does that happen? How does an innocent man sit on death row for 15 years and gets no relief? And that piqued my interest, Anthony Porter.”
Ryan okayed the execution of Kokoraleis six weeks later, but the piqued governor would soon impose an executive moratorium on further executions.
Ryan’s personal journey on the death penalty during his four years in the governor’s office, as linked to his state’s journey over the past decades, must be one of the rare operatic sagas in modern American political life.
Days before he left office (bound for trial on federal corruption charges, and thence to prison), George Ryan emptied death row in Illinois — including a commutation to Ripper Crew member Edward Spreitzer.
Because our three year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing; because of the spectacular failure to reform the system; because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims; because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral – I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.
I cannot say it more eloquently than Justice Blackmun.
The legislature couldn’t reform it.
Lawmakers won’t repeal it.
But I will not stand for it.
I must act.
Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.
This move drew plenty of criticism, but the George Ryan death penalty moratorium persisted through the terms of his successors.
Finally, legislators did repeal it.
Early in 2011, longstanding efforts to push that moratorium into formal abolition finally bore fruit in the state legislature. After a protracted silence on the matter, Gov. Pat Quinn** finally — just eight days ago as of this posting — signed that legislation into law, simultaneously commuting all the state’s then-existing death sentences.
Naturally, no government can bind its successors, and laws eliminated today might be reinstated tomorrow. But for now and for the foreseeable future, this date in 1999 marks the final destination not just for Andrew Kokoraleis — but for the Illinois executioner.
* To magnify this troupe’s outsized crime-tabloid appeal, Gecht, the leader, had actually worked for legendary serial sex-killer John Wayne Gacy.
** In earlier years, Quinn was a political rival of George Ryan.