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Candidates Discuss Illinois' Death Penalty Moratorium - 2002-03-05

Two years ago, the Midwest U.S. state of Illinois became the first in the nation to impose a moratorium on executions. Illinois Governor George Ryan appointed a panel to investigate the state's death penalty system, which has put several falsely-accused inmates on Death Row.

Governor Ryan leaves office in less than a year, and whoever replaces him might have to decide what to do about capital punishment in Illinois.

Since 1977, Illinois has executed 12 inmates. It has exonerated 13 after they were found to have been falsely accused. A commission appointed by Governor Ryan to investigate the state's death penalty system is expected to issue its report in the coming weeks. The commission could recommend keeping the moratorium in place while reforms are enacted to make sure only the guilty are sentenced to death.

Most of the six candidates running to replace Governor Ryan favor keeping the moratorium, at least for now. Political scientist Paul Green of Chicago's Roosevelt University said that is no surprise. "The notion of executing innocent people, whatever your philosophical bent is, and whether you are pro-or-anti-death penalty, almost no one wants that to take place," he said.

The complaints against the Illinois death penalty system are numerous — that some suspects were convicted because of coerced confessions, or untrue eyewitness testimonies.

Democrat Rod Blagojevic, who is running for governor, also said defendants in death penalty cases often can not afford a quality legal defense. He favors maintaining the moratorium. Mr. Blagojevic said, "The big problem I think with the death penalty is still going to be inequities in our criminal justice system that leave it where poor people cannot afford good lawyers, or lawyers who have the resources to be able to investigate cases and vigorously defend their cases, and where rich defendants can hire the most lawyers and investigators they can get."

Since the moratorium went into effect, Illinois has enacted several reforms to its death penalty system. The state legislature has created a $20 million fund to improve legal work in such cases, including expert witnesses and DNA testing. The Illinois Supreme Court last year adopted rules requiring more training for judges and lawyers involved in capital punishment cases.

Those changes are enough for Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick O'Malley to consider the death penalty system fixed. He said the moratorium is unconstitutional and should be lifted, which he said he will do if he is elected. "The people of Illinois," he said, "should they be victims, are entitled to certain rights that are guaranteed specifically within the constitution. One of those is for the prompt resolution of proceedings involving a person arrested for a given crime."

Three Republicans and three Democrats are running for governor of Illinois. Only Mr. O'Malley favors lifting the moratorium, and only Republican Corrine Wood says she would consider signing legislation banning capital punishment in the state if the problems can not be fixed. Others, like Republican Jim Ryan and Democrats Rod Blagojevic, Roland Burris and Paul Vallas, favor maintaining the moratorium.

All, like fortmer Chicago's public School chief Paul Vallas, said they do not oppose capital punishment in general. "I can not philosophically oppose the death penalty after seeing 126 of my children killed in their own communities and having raised money to bury 65 of those children," he said. "I do not oppose the death penalty, but I do support the moratorium."

Illinois voters have generally supported Governor Ryan's execution moratorium, though Paul Green of Roosevelt University said there is little public sentiment in the state to outlaw capital punishment. Mr. Greed said, "Illinois has had some very heinous crimes and individuals have been put to death without any regret on the part of most people. We have had some mass killers here [for whom] no one stood up and screamed that they should not be put to death. I think by and large this is a state that is pro-death penalty."

There are currently 159 people on Death Row in Illinois. That number could shrink in the coming months. Governor Ryan said recently he would review the case of every Death Row inmate in the state, and is leaving open the possibility that he could commute some or all of the death sentences to life in prison.