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Move Will Intensify Debate on Executions

January 12, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Ryan's bold decision to grant clemency to all 167 inmates on Illinois' death row will intensify scrutiny of whether capital punishment is administered fairly in the United States. Some observers Saturday predicted an immediate backlash could solidify supporters of the death penalty, but in the long term, most expected heightened chances for reforms.

"Gov. Ryan has fired a shot that will be heard around the world and I think it will hasten the end of capital punishment," said Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

"This action will show how unnecessary the death penalty is," because the beneficiaries of Ryan's action "are still being severely punished, getting life without possibility of parole, and the community is protected," Bright added.

But Joshua Marquis, co-chairman of the National District Attorneys Assn.'s Capital Litigation Committee, countered that Ryan "was spitting on the graves of more than 100 murder victims."

Another leading prosecutor also expressed outrage at Ryan's decision but predicted that the blanket commutations and Ryan's declaration that the Illinois system is irrevocably broken would have a mixed effect.

A 'Two-Edged Sword'

"It will be a two-edged sword: It may prompt necessary reform and it may prompt a rededication to the death penalty," said Paul Logli, the district attorney in Rockford, Ill., who also is vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn.

UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring said that, in the short term, Ryan's action might generate more criticism than praise because last year he held out the prospect that some inmates would be executed and the families of victims in those cases will be particularly angry. "It will be those violated expectations that will precipitate a reaction in the next couple of weeks."

But ultimately, Zimring said, "This will be one of the major landmarks in the end game for American capital punishment which already has begun."

Some observers think the end game began in the same place where Ryan made his announcement Saturday: at Chicago's Northwestern Law School.

Four years ago, foes of capital punishment held a conference at Northwestern, where they presented 29 former death row inmates -- most of them non-white -- who had been exonerated and released from prison. In a dramatic presentation, the 27 men and two women came onstage individually, gave their names, described the crimes they been wrongly convicted of, the length of their incarcerations and in a mantra-like refrain, said that if the authorities had their way, "I'd be dead today."

The next year, the Chicago Tribune published a series on major systemic flaws in the Illinois death penalty system, and in January 2000, Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in the state, saying he had lost confidence in how capital punishment was being administered in the state. At that point, 13 men who had been on death row in Illinois had been exonerated while 12 had been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

In April, a blue ribbon commission appointed by Ryan issued a report that excoriated the system's failings.

Reforms Recommended

The commission, which included prosecutors and defense lawyers, recommended 85 reforms, including reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 20 to five; banning execution of the mentally retarded; and banning death sentences for those convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of a single eyewitness or a jailhouse informant.

But none of the reforms has been enacted, and Ryan cited the state legislature's failure to act as a key reason for his action Saturday.

In the meantime, one other governor -- Parris Glendening of Maryland -- declared a moratorium, and several other states, including North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada, have been reexamining the fairness of capital punishment in their states.

The reexaminations were prompted by revelations that, since 1976, 102 men and women sentenced to death nationwide were exonerated and freed from prison, including a number whose innocence was established by DNA testing.

Moreover, according to Justice Department figures, only half as many death sentences were meted out in 2001 as in 1998.

Before Ryan's action Saturday there were more than 3,700 people on death rows across the country.

Texas Leads Nation

There were 71 executions in the U.S. last year. Nearly half of those, 33, were in Texas. California has the nation's largest death row population -- 612 -- but has executed only 10 people, including four since Gov. Gray Davis, a fervent death penalty supporter, took office in 1999.

Legislation has been introduced in Washington to reform federal death penalty procedures, and the chief sponsor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said Saturday that he would continue to push to resolve the widespread problems.

"The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed nationwide," Leahy said.

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