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Illinois governor imposes death penalty moratorium

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Acknowledging that the death penalty cannot always be carried out infallibly, Gov. George Ryan called for a stay of executions in Illinois while a specially appointed state commission is established to investigate capital punishment procedures.

Illinois’ Republican governor, who favors the death penalty, surprised many in and outside the state with his announcement in Chicago Jan. 31.

Ryan called for a moratorium citing “grave concerns about our state’s shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.” He said that he could no longer “support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life.”

Illinois has exonerated 13 men on death row, more than the 12 whose life it has taken since the Supreme Court re-instated the death penalty in 1976.

Among the 13 inmates whose death sentences have been reversed -- all within the past six years -- the case of Anthony Porter drew close attention. Held for 15 years on death row, Porter came within two days of being executed when journalism students at Northwestern University in Evanston helped to prove his innocence.

Novelist and Chicago lawyer Scott Turow uncovered new evidence that led to the exoneration of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. Both men served more than a decade on death row for the wrongful conviction of the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. In addition, five of the 13 men cleared were exonerated by DNA testing that ruled them out as murderers.

Ryan pointed to a recent investigative report series in the Chicago Tribune that studied 285 death sentence convictions. Of 260 that were appealed, half have been overturned for new trials or sentencing hearings. The Tribune found 30 cases in which death row inmates had been represented by disbarred defense lawyers or those suspended from practice. Prosecutorial misconduct, including the suppression of evidence, was a factor in several other cases. In a further 40 cases, false testimony from unreliable witnesses was used to convict and to condemn defendants.

A majority of Illinois’ 161 condemned men are black or Latino. Of the state’s 12 executions -- 10 of them done on the watch of former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar -- five involved the execution of black men. In only three of the 12 executions were any of the murder victims black.

Some 4,000 of the state’s business and civic leaders called for a moratorium late last month. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses Harrison II has also voiced his support for a moratorium, as has Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor, who served in the 1980s as Cook County state’s attorney, prosecuted some of the death penalty cases that were later reversed.

Besides Illinois, moratorium legislation, resolutions or referendums are underway in at least 11 other of the 38 death penalty states: Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000