State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, is pushing legislation that would make it illegal in Illinois for a fugitive's family members to harbor or aid the fleeing suspect.
Illinois currently is one of 14 states that specifically exempt close relatives from prosecution for helping fugitives flee — no matter how heinous the alleged crime.
Chicago Tribune investigation, "Fugitives from Justice," which highlighted flaws in the criminal justice system that enable fugitives to flee the country after committing serious felonies and to remain free even when authorities know their whereabouts.
"You read these stories and it's heartbreaking — you feel pity for (the victims') families," Silverstein told the Tribune on Thursday. "To lose a loved one and to deal with that pain every day while their murderer lives a happy, free life, as do those who helped the murderer escape their punishment, is a tremendous burden to bear."
He added, "We should have closed that loophole a long time ago."
Silverstein's bill, which will be considered by the General Assembly early next year, would make it a Class 4 felony for immediate family members to assist a fugitive, punishable by a one- to three-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $25,000.
Illinois Republicans, including state Sen. Kirk Dillard, have also spoken out in favor of eliminating Illinois' family exemption, and earlier this week Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin urged the state legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn to revise the law and strike the exemption.
Advocates of the so-called family exemption say it would be inhumane and unnatural to expect a person to surrender a close relative to authorities. But critics say the exemption creates an incentive for criminals to recruit relatives who can help them flee, or conceal evidence with impunity.
"This is a stark example of how our justice system uses the family status of a person to benefit defendants in ways that are at odds with achieving justice and reducing crime," Florida State University law professor Dan Markel told the Tribune.
The Tribune series detailed the case of Muaz Haffar, who was charged in 2005 with killing 23-year old student Tombol Malik with a bike lock. Haffar's father subsequently purchased an airline ticket that enabled Haffar to flee to Syria, according to two law enforcement sources involved in the investigation. And government records and interviews show that one of Haffar's older brothers accompanied him on at least the first leg of his journey out of Chicago.
Haffar's father, Dr. Nabil Haffar, has denied buying his son's plane ticket. Authorities believe Haffar remains at large in Syria today, records and interviews show.
Tombol Malik's brother Sati Malik said his family applauded Silverstein's efforts. "But," he said, "we can't have closure until Muaz Haffar is brought to justice. At the end of the day we're looking for a diplomatic solution that results in Muaz Haffar's extradition from Syria."