Illinois: Panel proposes changes in death penalty

The report of a special panel appointed by Illinois Governor George Ryan to study application of the death penalty was released last month. Although the report's 80 recommendations for change stop short of recommending abolition, many people are now drawing the conclusion that the only way innocent people can be saved from execution is by ending the death penalty.

The Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment was appointed two years ago after Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in response to the fact that 13 prisoners on death row had been exonerated by new evidence. At least ten more inmates who have been sentenced to death charge that they were convicted and sentenced on the basis of confessions coerced by torture.

The Commission is co-chaired by former prosecutor and judge Frank McGarr and by former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. The 13-member panel, carefully balanced to reflect liberal and conservative views on capital punishment, included former CIA and FBI head William Webster and novelist Scott Turow.

Among the recommendations, nearly all of which were approved unanimously, are proposals that would allow judges to overrule death sentences imposed by juries; prohibit the death sentence in cases where the accused is mentally impaired; and prohibit a sentence of death when the conviction results from testimony of a single witness or a co-defendant seeking leniency.

Other proposals call for mandatory videotaping of the entire interrogation of suspects accused of capital crimes, not just of his/her confession; require judges to instruct juries on available alternatives to the death sentence; and call for more funds for DNA testing.

Members of the commission were scathing in their condemnation of police, prosecutors, judges and incompetent or indifferent defense attorneys. Although the commission did not call for abolition, it did take an informal vote in which those favoring abolition were a majority.

Both candidates for governor in the 2002 elections, Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Jim Ryan, have said they would not lift the moratorium although both they and both candidates for attorney general repeated that they are in favor of the death penalty.

Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine and police officials denounced the report, calling it a blow to the rights of victims of crime. They claimed that the recommended changes would impede police and prosecutors. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was Cook County State's Attorney when some of the worst police and prosecutorial abuses leading to wrongful conviction occurred, has publicly stated that he is 'pro-death,' also criticized the report.

Following release of the report, a coalition of organizations opposed to the death penality renewed their call for abolition and pointed out that at least ten more men sit on death row who claim that they were wrongly convicted on the basis of abusive practices mentioned in the commission report. Anti-death penalty activists are upbeat, for even some supporters of the death penalty are beginning to say that if continuing it is going to require so many safeguards, abolition may be less trouble and expense.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org