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Website Offers Rare Glimpse at Murder in Illinois

Searchable database of homicides in Illinois leading up to abolition of death penalty

CHICAGO---A new Northwestern University School of Law website offers a rare in-depth statistical look at murder in Illinois in the 10-year period leading up to the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.

Leigh Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern School of Law, collected the data over several years as part of her work on the Illinois Committee to Study the Reform of the Death Penalty. 

The new database on murder and the history of capital punishment in Illinois includes indictments of more than 2,200 murders across the state between 2000 and 2010.

“New murder databases are relatively rare,” Bienen said. “And this new homicide database covers a very important jurisdiction--Illinois--during a period of significant and very interesting legal change, the time leading up to the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.”

Murder and homicide attract a broad range of researchers, including criminologists, criminal law researchers, historians, economists and others. This new database should be a gold mine for people from many disciplines, she said. It will also be useful to news reporters, as well as family members of victims or defendants, who are interested in specific murders committed during the period.

Information on defendants, for example, can be cross-referenced with data on criminal convictions and incarcerations made public on the web by the Illinois Department of Corrections. In addition, by researching newspaper reports about the case, the trial or deposition, it is possible to see the final result of an Illinois murder prosecution.

“It’s now very easy, for example, to compare this set of murder indictments in Illinois with information on cases from another state,” Bienen said. Indictments can be compared for a particular year or by county or city. Comparisons can be made between prosecutorial patterns within the state as well.  

The indictments, voted on by a grand jury, represent formal legal charges. Consequently, they are a very precise and accurate record of a murder. They do not indicate whether the murder was designated as a capital murder. Those decisions are made by county state’s attorneys after indictment. However, the indictments include information on other crimes committed during the murder and include indications of aggravation, such as whether the murder was committed with a gun or whether another crime, such as robbery or burglary, was charged.  

The history of capital punishment in Illinois and the information in the database has been rigorously analyzed by Bienen, Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Illinois Committee to Study the Reform of the Death Penalty. 

In 2010 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, (vol. 100, No. 4) published Bienen’s article analyzing the cost data in Illinois, “Capital Punishment in Illinois in the Aftermath of The Ryan Commutations: Reforms, Economic Realities, and a New Saliency for Issues of Cost.” The original cost data used for that article from the Comptroller of Illinois and from the Capital Litigation Trust Fund is now available on the new website.  

“If there’s a murder in Cook County or Lake County during the period, for instance, a reporter can check the database to see if the person was indicted and follow up with information from the Department of Corrections to see if there was a sentence,” Bienen said. “You can search our database by county or for name of victim and for name of defendant, as well as for the date of murder and the date of indictment.”

The new database continues Bienen’s work on homicide in Illinois, which resulted in the creation of the Historical Homicide website, That website now has had more than one million visitors since its creation. The same team of designers and researchers worked together to make this new dataset on murder in Illinois available.

Bienen is the author of several books and articles, including a recent book of essays, “Murder and Its Consequences: Essays on Capital Punishment in America” (Northwestern University Press, September 2010). She has published a number of legal articles on capital punishment in Illinois and New Jersey, as well as books and articles on murder and capital punishment nationally and crime generally.

She is currently working on a book on Florence Kelley, the Illinois factory inspector and social reformer, and the history of Chicago during the end of the 19th century. The team which created this website also created a website devoted to the work of Florence Kelley,
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