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Illinois Enacts Death Penalty Reforms

Lawmakers override a veto to revamp a process that led to wrongful convictions.

November 20, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Illinois lawmakers completed their overhaul of the state's capital punishment system Wednesday in an effort to correct what many described as a flawed death-penalty process that led to the wrongful convictions of at least 13 men.

The Illinois House voted 115 to 0 to override a veto of legislation containing the changes; the state Senate overrode the veto earlier this month.

The measure, which goes into effect immediately, comes in the wake of Illinois' death row being cleared with a blanket clemency early this year by outgoing Gov. George Ryan.

The new law allows defendants to have greater access to evidence, mandates that the death penalty not be used in cases that rely on only one witness, and prevents the mentally retarded from being executed. It also gives the Illinois Supreme Court more leeway in tossing out death penalty verdicts it believes are "fundamentally unjust."

"There clearly were flaws in the criminal justice system," said House Republican Leader Tom Cross, the bill's lead author. "We feel these reforms have restored our criminal justice system to the level it needed to be at."

Wednesday's vote overrode a veto by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who wanted to amend the bill's provision calling for the automatic dismissal of any law enforcement officer found to have lied during a murder investigation. Blagojevich said he was concerned that the language of the measure did not do enough to protect officers' rights.

Lawmakers recently worked with Blagojevich to come up with a compromise on the matter, and the governor said Wednesday that he would approve that part of the legislation when it reached his office.

The controversy over death penalty laws in Illinois exploded in 2000, when Gov. Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions. Ryan's decision came after it became evident that four death row inmates had been wrongly convicted. Before Ryan left office in January, he moved 167 prisoners off Illinois' death row, commuting their sentences to life in prison.

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