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Landmark Illinois struggle with death-penalty system

A commission divides on abolishment, but suggests fixes so costly, they'd be a de facto death-penalty ban.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2002


Accolades rolled in two years ago when Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state. Now comes the hard part.

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With a new report from his capital-punishment commission released this week, the governor must decide which of its controversial recommendations he'll support. Then he'll have to find the resources to fund them. It could be an expensive process.

But the system now in place in Illinois and many other states – with its own high costs of litigation – can lead to serious problems. Innocent people have been convicted, and, the commission found, the death penalty is applied unevenly among the population.

Now, all eyes are on Illinois to see whether it's willing to spend substantially more money to further improve the system – or even to abolish it.

"The whole world is watching," says Charles Hoffman, a death-penalty defense attorney in Chicago and an opponent of capital punishment. "Most states ... are in denial" that a problem even exists.

Here in Illinois, however, the evidence of problems in the death-penalty system is well documented. Since 1977, when the state reinstated the death penalty, 12 people have been executed, but 13 have been removed from death row after their capital convictions were thrown out.

"All 13 cases were characterized by relatively little solid evidence," the commission concluded. "In some cases, the evidence was so minimal that there was some question, not only as to why the prosecutor sought the death penalty, but why prosecution was even pursued against the particular defendant."

For example, two men were convicted of a 1978 double murder because the prosecution's leading witness, a 17-year-old, claimed to be their accomplice. But they were released after DNA showed they didn't commit the crime.

Nationwide, since 1973, 100 people sentenced to death have had their capital-punishment convictions thrown out. The latest, in Arizona, was exonerated earlier this month by post-conviction DNA testing.

The Illinois report is likely to receive plenty of attention, because of the makeup of the commission itself. It includes former US Sen. Paul Simon; former FBI Director William Webster; a retired judge; former prosecutors; and public defenders. In its exhaustive investigation, the commission looked carefully at more than 250 cases in which Illinois imposed a death penalty. The commission was split – 8 in favor, 5 against, 1 abstaining – on the issue of abolishing the death penalty. Its report contains 85 recommendations for how to fix the system – from initial police interrogations all the way to post-sentencing review.

Many Illinois state prosecutors characterized the recommendations as a de facto abolishment of the death penalty.

"These are, in large part, additional ways of making police and prosecutors' jobs so much more difficult than they already are as to make it virtually impossible to obtain a death-penalty conviction," said Robert Haida, a prosecutor in St. Clair County, Ill.