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Illinois Panel Proposes Broad Reforms in Capital Punishment

The Nation

April 16, 2002|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Illinois must implement sweeping changes to improve fairness in how it imposes the death penalty, but no amount of reform can guarantee that an innocent person will not be executed, according to a report issued Monday by a bipartisan commission appointed by the state's governor, George Ryan.

The report, perhaps the most comprehensive study of capital punishment prepared by a governmental body, makes 85 recommendations, including reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 20 to five and banning the execution of the mentally retarded.

The commission declined to recommend abolishing the death penalty but acknowledged that a "narrow majority" of its 14 members favored ending it.

Issued two years after Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois, the report recommends that no one be sentenced to death based solely on the testimony of a single, uncorroborated eyewitness or the unverified testimony of a jailhouse informant.

The commission also called for videotaping of police interrogations of suspects in homicide cases; adoption of statewide standards when the death penalty should be used; strengthened procedures to ensure that competent attorneys are appointed to represent defendants in capital cases; and creation of a statewide independent forensics laboratory.

The commission was headed by a former federal judge, Frank McGarr; a former U.S. senator, Paul Simon; and a former federal prosecutor, Thomas P. Sullivan. The panel said the recommendations would "significantly improve the fairness and accuracy of the Illinois death penalty system."

Commission members cautioned that they were "unanimous in the belief that 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."

Since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977, the state has imposed 263 death sentences and executed 12 inmates. About 60% of those sentences were reversed for a variety of reasons--including police or prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel and mistaken identification.

Thirteen individuals who were sentenced to death were cleared and released from prison, including one man--Anthony Porter--who had ordered his last meal. Porter's exoneration prompted Ryan, a Republican who had supported the death penalty as a legislator, to impose the moratorium in January 2000, saying he would permit no executions until he had "moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection."

On Monday, Ryan said the moratorium would remain in effect "at least as long as I am governor." His term ends in January.

Ryan is the only U.S. governor to have declared such a moratorium and his action made Illinois a centerpiece in the death penalty debate.

"What we do will be watched by the rest of the country and the world," Ryan said at a Chicago news conference in which the commission presented the report to him.

"This study is a road map of how to approach the problems of the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, a group opposed to capital punishment. "They looked at all the dimensions of the issue."

Indeed, the 207-page report, supplemented with about 600 pages of appendixes, covers subjects ranging from police misconduct to shortcomings in how the criminal justice system treats the family members of murder victims.

"In medical terms, our report calls for triage, an attempt to staunch the extraordinary rate of errors, reversals and convictions in capital cases," said Sullivan, the former prosecutor.

"The message from this report is clear: Repair or repeal. Fix the capital punishment system or abolish it. There is no other principled course," said Sullivan, who is now a partner at Jenner & Block, one of Chicago's largest law firms.

Columbia University law professor James S. Liebman, who has conducted extensive research on the death penalty, said the proposal to limit the situations when capital punishment could be imposed is perhaps the most significant in the report.

"If there is any one thing that causes Illinois to stand out as a risk factor for error [it] is its long list of aggravating circumstances that make someone eligible for the death penalty. If you really want to do something serious about the death penalty problem, you have to do something about the range of cases to which the death penalty applies," Liebman said.

Reforms May Face Legislative Obstacles

The report recommends eliminating one of the criteria most often used to make a defendant eligible for the death penalty--a murder that is committed in the course of another felony, prime among them robbery or rape.

Among those who would remain eligible for capital punishment are individuals accused of multiple murders or the slaying of a police officer or a witness.

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