Illinois hearings revive death-penalty debate

The state is reconsidering 139 cases of convicted felons. The outcome may spur similar examinations nationwide.

Latasha Pulliam's lawyers have been given an hour to plead for her life. Although Ms. Pulliam was sentenced to death for the sexual assault and murder of a 6-year-old in 1991, her case is once more the subject of opening statements, disputed facts, lawyerly maneuvering, and spirited closing arguments.

But this time Ms. Pulliam is absent. And the case itself isn't being debated inside a courtroom but rather in a nondescript state office building – all in the time it takes for a Perry Mason episode to play out on TV.

The scene is one of 139 hearings taking place over nine days in Illinois in the largest mass review of death-penalty cases in United States history.

The cases were reopened by Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R), who is considering whether to commute the capital sentences of 160 felons in the state who sit on death row. He ordered the reviews after DNA evidence exonerated 13 death-row inmates two years ago, after which he declared a temporary moratorium on all Illinois executions.

The hearings are reviving painful emotions for the families of the victims. But their effects may have a still larger impact beyond the dramatic accounts unspooling inside several drab conference rooms here. Indeed, the case is being closely watched across the country by supporters of both sides of the death-penalty issue. Any exonerations that result from the two-week hearings could lead to other reviews elsewhere and give momentum to the anti-capital punishment movement.

"This is a major event," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. "If this results in most or all of the cases being overturned, it says there's a serious problem in a large Midwestern state, and other states may decide they need to take a serious look at the 3,000 or so other people on death row."

A proxy courtroom

In one hearing room on this day, the role of the judge is being played by a member of an Illinois prison-review board, Chairman Jorges Montes, who sits behind his fancy name tag on a platform. In front of him is an oversubscribed assembly of about 50 people, most seated, others pressed to the walls. The atmosphere is hot, stuffy, and scorched with high emotion.

Chairman Montes repeatedly reminds lawyers and expert witnesses for both sides to "be brief." But when Emma Richards, the mother of the victim stands in front of the folding table that serves as both a lawyer desk and podium, Montes's face shows that he's not going to press her on a time limit. In tears, Richards proceeds to recount the day she discovered what she initially thought to be a toy doll.

"I looked in a garbage can," says Ms. Richards, tall and erect though her face looks drawn, "that doll was my baby."

Voice cracking, she begs the panel not to recommend reducing Pulliam's death sentence. "She could get out," she sobs.

National focus of the death-row debate

Richards is one of many family members re-living capital punishment cases since Governor Ryan ordered the reviews. Ryan, a Republican, has greatly affected the national debate on the issue ever since he put a moratorium on the death penalty two years ago.

But what Ryan will do before ending his term in January is uncertain. Unable to run for reelection due to a drivers-license scandal when he was secretary of state, he has none of the future political opportunities that would normally influence a decision. While some groups are calling for blanket commutation, others feel that such a broad act would not necessarily be good for their movement. "If it seems he did not look at each one, there could be a backlash," Mr. Dieter says.

There's so much concern that Ryan will issue blanket clemency for all sentenced to death, that thousands have signed petitions asking Ryan to isolate cases of cop killers from the rest of the death-row cases. "We want him to review them separately and leave the death sentences intact," says policeman John Van Schaik, wearing a yellow ribbon in memory of his brother, a fellow police officer, murdered in 1979.

Other than his dress-blue uniform, officer Van Schaik is symbolic of many other victims' family members in both appearance and point of view. "All these hearings are doing for me is bringing back memories I've lived with for 23 years, and I don't like that one bit," he says.

But in the room where Emma Richards's case is being reviewed, one victim offers a different view. "We are not helped by continuing the circle of violence," says Jennifer Bishop, national chair of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

Throughout Illinois, one of the key concerns is the same as in Montes's courtroom: time. Underscoring the make-it-quick tone of the hastily prepared meetings, hand-printed name tags sit on the table in front of some panel members. Lawyers had only a few days to prepare a synopsis of cases that are often a decade old. Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against Governor Ryan, asking that the reviews be canceled because the brief time allotted wouldn't permit justice to be done.

Emotional recollections

Beyond the time issue, talk here focuses on the agony that victim's families have been going through. Lawyers on both sides stress that they were not responsible for bringing the families back into court. "I'm not the one who asked the victims to come in. The other side did that," says Anna Ahronheim, the lawyer representing Latasha Pulliam.

The testimony of family members is clearly the centerpiece of each hearing. Audience members drift in and out during presentations by lawyers and legal experts, which often touch on legal definitions of metal retardation and other reasons that could bring clemency. But when family members recount their stories, rooms fill up, and even police guarding the doors step inside the doors to listen over the sound of clicking news cameras.

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