Activists take on the death penalty

CHICAGO – Almost three years ago, Gov. George Ryan (R), under tremendous pressure from activists, citizens and 13 exonerated death row inmates, enacted a moratorium on all death sentences in the state and formed a commission to study the system.

The commission found that it would take 85 substantial reforms to improve the death penalty system. A majority of the commission also agreed by the end of their two-year deliberations 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.”

Under pressure from activists, the commission and a public that is now aware of the systematic racist tendency of the death penalty system, Ryan is holding hearings to possibly commute all Illinois death sentences to life in prison.

The right wing, however, is also digging in for battle. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, State Attorney General Jim Ryan, has lashed back by filing a lawsuit to stop the commuting hearing. The integrity of Atty. Gen. Ryan’s own record is on trial because of the commuting hearings. As a public prosecutor he had a prominent role in the cases of many of the original 13 innocent men who were almost executed by the state, including the highly publicized Rolondo Cruz case.

But the public is becoming increasingly galvanized by the inequalities of the criminal justice system. The system allowed 10 of the original 13 innocent men to be tortured with electric shock, suffocation and Russian Roulette by Jon Burge, a former lieutenant and his officers in Chicago’s Area II Violent Crimes Detective Unit. The 14-member commission, including former prosecutors, a former U.S. senator and the general counsel to the Chicago Police Department, found that Black and Latino defendants are seven times more likely to be sentenced to death if they are accused of killing a white person.

Commission member Scott Turrow said, “As I dealt with this issue for the last two years on a systemic basis, I just couldn’t find any way to rationalize who gets executed and who doesn’t. My own conclusion is I just don’t see how this can be fairly administered.”

In April, the 100th person, nationally since 1976, was exonerated and freed from death row. The Supreme Court has also recently ruled that executing mentally disabled people is unconstitutional. A national study of the death penalty by Columbia University found that all death penalty states have an average serious error rate of 68 percent in death penalty cases; Illinois has a rate of 66 percent. The most common errors include prosecutorial misconduct, insufficient evidence and inadequate legal representation.

In Illinois, according to Chicago Tribune reporters, a full half of the 250 people sentenced to death in the state in the last 25 years could not be put to death were the commission’s 85 reforms put into effect. The 85 reforms suggest measures such as limiting the number of crimes punishable by death, creating a statewide panel to review cases in which the death penalty is sought, requiring police to videotape interrogations and full funding of the accused for the defense.

Local efforts to abolish the death penalty have not only taken root in Illinois. Florida, California and Texas are also seeing strong movements to eradicate the death sentence.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org