Illinois, Citing Faulty Verdicts, Bars Executions
By DIRK JOHNSON
SPRINGFIELD, IL (AP) –Citing a “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row,” Gov. George Ryan of Illinois today halted all executions in the state, the first such moratorium in the nation.
Governor Ryan, a moderate Republican who supports the death penalty but questions its administration, noted that 13 men had been sentenced to death in Illinois since 1977 for crimes they did not commit, before ultimately being exonerated and freed by the courts.
“I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error,” he said, “and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life.”
Opponents of the death penalty, who said mistaken convictions like those discovered in Illinois were common throughout the nation, hailed the move. Since 1973, 85 people have been found to be innocent and released from death row.
The Nebraska Legislature passed a moratorium on executions last year, citing concerns of racial disparity in sentencing, but the governor vetoed it. Bills that would halt executions are pending in 12 states.
In Oregon, an anti-death-penalty group led by Mark Hatfield, a former Republican senator and governor, hopes to put a measure on the ballot that would eliminate executions and instead provide for sentences of life without parole.
More than 600 inmates have been put to death since 1977, when the Supreme Court allowed the reinstatement of the death penalty. The death penalty is on the law books in 38 states. The Midwest has traditionally been a center of opposition to the death penalty. It is not allowed in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota or Wisconsin.
In Illinois, about 150 inmates are on death row; none had an execution date.
Governor Ryan’s announcement of a moratorium met with little public criticism here, a measure of how public outrage over the wrongful convictions has changed the political landscape on the issue in this state.
“Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate,” the governor said.
Mr. Ryan resisted calls for a moratorium last year, but he said that continuing evidence of flaws in the system, including still more reversals of convictions, had persuaded him to impose a moratorium.
One of the leading voices for a moratorium has been that of Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, who, while he was Cook County State’s Attorney in the 1980’s, prosecuted some of the death penalty cases that later were overturned.
Mayor Daley now contends that prosecutors did nothing improper in these cases but that defense lawyers were often poorly financed and sometimes incompetent.
In nine of the reversed Illinois cases, students and professors at Northwestern University unearthed pivotal evidence that freed the men from death row.
Lawrence Marshall, a law professor at Northwestern who is director of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at the university, said that the mistakes unearthed in Illinois surely existed in other states.
“This should not be seen as an Illinois problem,” Professor Marshall said. “What happened here is that we got lucky in the first few cases, and found the evidence? After that, people were more willing to take a second look at other cases.”
The willingness in Illinois to examine such cases, Mr. Marshall said, means that letters from inmates protesting innocence are not ignored.
“The political climate has changed here,” he said. “There has been an astonishing recognition that innocent people are being sent to death row. So now people are re-examining cases in Illinois that would not be re-examined in other states.”
While Illinois seems to have become a center of debate over the death penalty, the issue is gaining resonance around the nation, after many years in which it was seen as essentially a dead letter in American politics.
Besides the halt on executions here, and the vetoed moratorium in Nebraska, the death penalty has been the focus of intense scrutiny in Florida and other states. Last year, in a visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II called on Catholics to oppose the death penalty.
And a new movie, “Hurricane,” examines the life of a man, Rubin Carter, who was sent to death row for a crime he did not commit.
“People are starting to raise more concerns about the death penalty,” said Steven Hawkins, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s becoming obvious that mistakes can be made, and innocent people” can be sent to death row.
While the wrongful convictions in Illinois have generated intense scrutiny and debate, Florida has had 18-death row cases reversed, the most of any state.
Governor Ryan, who said he would appoint a panel to study death penalty sentences, heads the Illinois campaign for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the state that executes more people than any other.
“I believe that a public dialogue must begin on the question of fairness of the application of the death penalty in Illinois,” Mr. Ryan said.
In about a year as governor, Mr. Ryan has taken some actions that have put him at odds with conservatives in his party. He has called for strict gun control, expressed support for the civil rights of gays and traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Some suburban and downstate lawmakers complain that Mr. Ryan has maintained too cozy a political relationship with Mayor Daley, a Democrat.
Mr. Ryan has lately been beleaguered by an investigation into a bribery scandal at driver’s license bureaus that occurred during his watch as the Illinois secretary of state. While Mr. Ryan has not been charged with wrongdoing, one of his top aides is expected to be indicted.
Seventeen people have pleaded guilty to taking bribes to fix driver’s license exams, and some of the money went to Mr. Ryan’s campaign.
Since 1977, Illinois has executed 12 inmates, the most recent in March 1999, the lethal injection of Andrew Kokoraleis, and a suburban Chicago man who had been convicted of an especially grisly murder.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has instituted special internal reviews for all cases that would be eligible for the death penalty. The prosecutor’s office, which is headed by Richard Devine, a Democrat, has not called for an execution date since April 1998.
David Erickson, the first assistant state’s attorney, said the governor’s call for a moratorium was appropriate.
“The easy thing would have been to finger-point, and the governor did not do that,” Mr. Erickson said. “If something has fallen apart here, it is a systemic problem.”
Illinois, Citing Faulty Verdicts, Bars Executions