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Exorcise 'Demon of Error'

January 14, 2003

Death penalty opponents wishfully described Illinois Gov. George Ryan's decision to empty out Illinois' death row as the beginning of the end of capital punishment in the United States. Maybe. Less sweepingly, it should prompt thoughtful people on both sides of this bitter issue to find common ground in banishing what Ryan called "the demon of error" that has "haunted" its application. Congress could start in this session by passing a long-ignored package of reforms to help ensure that only the guilty are condemned to death.

As one of his final acts in office, Ryan on Saturday spared the lives of all 167 inmates slated to die in Illinois, changing their sentences to 40 years or -- in 164 of the cases -- life without parole. Ryan's clemency announcement came the day after he pardoned four others on death row who were said to have been tortured into confessing. Though the families of murder victims furiously denounced Ryan for waiting until virtually his last day in office, which allowed him to scamper away from news cameras and evade voter retribution, the governor's proclamation was a long time in coming.

In separate investigations over the last four years, Chicago Tribune reporters and Northwestern University students and faculty members concluded that close to 200 Illinois inmates had been convicted of capital crimes on suspect evidence or represented by shoddy lawyers or could be exonerated with DNA evidence.

Ryan, a Republican, credited these recent probes with launching "my journey from staunch supporter of capital punishment to reformer."

As fallible as Illinois' death penalty system is, it does far better than many in giving defendants a fair trial and competent counsel. Even in California, where the state Supreme Court automatically reviews all death sentences, there are no statewide standards that govern prosecutors in deciding whether to ask for death.

More than 25 years after the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to resume executions, few issues in American politics remain as enduringly divisive. But even those who see the death penalty as fair retribution should be alarmed that it is applied unevenly, depending on the prosecutor's office, with too few safeguards against condemning the innocent.

The proposed Innocence Protection Act, supported by a number of groups on either side of the capital punishment issue, would raise the standards required of lawyers in death penalty cases and permit post-conviction DNA testing. Yet despite bipartisan support, the bill stalled after passing the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, and its fate in the new Congress may be bleaker.

In his announcement Saturday, Ryan observed: " ... it is easier

This nation does have a problem with the death penalty, and it's time to start addressing it.

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