April 15, 2002

Illinois Panel: Death Sentence Needs Overhaul

Associated Press
Gov. George Ryan has made Illinois a bellwether for efforts to overhaul capital punishment.

CHICAGO, April 14 — Two years after Gov. George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on the death penalty, a bipartisan commission he established is calling for a sweeping overhaul of capital punishment in the state, with a narrow majority concluding that it should be abolished.

In a report scheduled for release Monday, the 14-member panel recommended 85 ways to prevent unwarranted executions, including videotaping all interrogations of suspects in capital cases, to prevent coerced confessions; reducing the number of factors making a crime eligible for the death penalty to 5 from 20; submitting all such cases to a state board for review, and establishing a statewide DNA database and an independent forensics lab.

"No system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death," the 207-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, concludes.

The commission also called for a ban on executing murderers who are mentally retarded, as well as those whose convictions had been based solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, prison informer or accomplice.

Governor Ryan's halt to executions — ordered after a number of innocent men on Illinois's death row were exonerated — has made his state a national bellwether for efforts to overhaul capital punishment.

After declaring the moratorium, Governor Ryan named the commission, whose members include the former United States Senator Paul Simon, the lawyer and author Scott Turow, and, as a special adviser, William H. Webster, the former director of central intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The report hinted that many of the more than 160 people now on death row in Illinois deserve clemency.

"If changes in the present system are required to ensure its fairness and accuracy," the report says, "it is entirely appropriate to consider how those changes might have made a difference to defendants when reaching determinations about whether or not a death sentence should be upheld on the merits or whether mercy should be extended."

The report acknowledges that implementing its recommendations would be expensive, but it does not offer specific price tags. Though most of the changes would require action by the state Legislature, the prospect of a continued moratorium, or of Governor Ryan's commuting all the pending death sentences, is strong leverage to action.

The report represents the most thorough independent analysis of the modern death penalty, with its focus on a state in which 13 death row inmates have been exonerated over the past decade. Yet it comes as Governor Ryan, a Republican, faces the nadir of a long political career, surrounded by a growing political corruption scandal.

This month, the governor's campaign committee and a longtime top aide were indicted on racketeering charges. This morning, The Chicago Tribune carried the latest in a series of damaging articles about his administration, suggesting that Mr. Ryan's chief legal counsel had bullied the state police into dropping an investigation into his office. Still, the governor remains a hero to opponents of capital punishment.

The widely anticipated report will be studied by the 37 other states that allow capital punishment, and is likely to prompt a broader review of the criminal justice system.

"All the states with the death penalty will have to look at these recommendations and shudder, if they look at them seriously," said Elisabeth Semel, director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California at Berkeley. "The death penalty is the tip of the criminal justice iceberg. If you expend millions of dollars to make the death penalty more fair in its application, what about the majority of cases where you have many similar problems?"

Though the commission has a diverse membership, including several veteran prosecutors and death penalty supporters, its recommendations echo the critiques that have been offered by capital punishment's most ardent enemies.

"We might have written it ourselves," said Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. "This report makes it abundantly clear that the system doesn't work and cannot work."

Governor Ryan's office declined to comment on the report until its release. Commission members plan a news conference at noon Monday.

The report includes detailed analysis of all 275 death penalty cases since Illinois re-established capital punishment in 1977. More than half of the sentences were reversed, it says, because of trial court errors and mistakes by prosecutors and defense lawyers. Nearly 60 percent of the sentences came in cases where a murder was committed in the course of a felony, one of the criteria that the commission proposes dropping; 46 percent involved multiple murders, and in 10 percent children were the victims.

An academic article in the appendix also shows that Illinois murderers were more likely to get the death penalty if their victims were white, female, and under 12 or over 59. White defendants were sentenced to death at more than twice the rate of black defendants: 4.5 percent compared with 1.8 percent.

Though the abolition of capital punishment is not among the commission's recommendations, the report says "a narrow majority" of its members would support its demise. "A strong consensus emerged," the authors wrote, "that if capital punishment is retained in Illinois, reforms in the nature of those we have outlined are indispensable to answering the governor's call to better ensure a fair, just and accurate death penalty scheme."

The commission recommends major changes at every stage of the legal system. Police officers should not allow their belief in a suspect's guilt to narrow investigations, the report urges. They should videotape all questioning of capital suspects, not just confessions, and public defenders should be provided immediately to suspects who ask for them. The current practice is to wait until a defendant is shown to be poor enough to qualify for a public defender.

Likely to be among the most controversial recommendations is changing the types of crimes in which capital punishment would be an option, and eliminating the broad category of murders committed in conjunction with other felonies. The commission would also remove the death penalty in hijackings, contract killings, drive-by shootings and the murders of children, the elderly, ambulance workers or teachers. Only multiple murders; the slayings of police officers, firefighters and witnesses in criminal proceedings; and homicides committed in prison or through torture would remain.

Too many eligibility factors have "overtaxed the resources of the criminal justice system, and, more important, reflect a degree of arbitrariness," the report says, adding that the death penalty should be limited to "the most heinous homicides and to other circumstances widely regarded as presenting compelling public policy concerns in favor of executions."

Since the enormous changes envisioned by the report would probably cost tens of millions of dollars and reduce the number of death penalty cases in Illinois to a handful, it may be read as an argument for abolition that avoids the moral minefields of the political debate.

© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


Return to Index