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Illinois Examines Handling of Death Penalty Cases - 2002-04-17

A specially-appointed commission is recommending major changes in the way the state of Illinois handles death penalty cases. Illinois has exonerated more people on its Death Row than it has executed, and has had a moratorium on executions in place for the last two years. The commission's report says no amount of change can guarantee an innocent person will never be executed.

Illinois Governor George Ryan appointed the 14-member panel in 2000, just after imposing the moratorium on executions. That came about when Illinois released its 13th prisoner from Death Row since 1977 after the inmate's conviction was overturned. Since 1977, Illinois has executed 12 Death Row inmates.

On Monday, the panel gave the governor a 700-page review of the Illinois death penalty system, along with its recommended 85 changes to help ensure that an innocent person is never executed. Former U.S. attorney Tom Sullivan is a member of the commission. "In medical terms, our report calls for triage: an attempt to stanch the extraordinary rate of errors, reversals and mistaken convictions in capital cases," he says.

The panel's recommended changes include requiring police to videotape interrogations of murder suspects, to ensure confessions are not coerced. It also calls for a statewide panel to review local prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty. It recommends mentally retarded inmates not be executed, and it proposes cutting the number of crimes eligible for a death sentence from 20 to five.

Governor Ryan says he will read the report and discuss it with commission members before acting upon it. The state legislature would have to approve any permanent changes to the Illinois capital punishment system. Some lawmakers have already said they oppose the moratorium and are not inclined to change state law based on the report. Public opinion polls in Illinois suggest most of the people in the state support capital punishment. Governor Ryan says he supports it as well, but hopes politics will not get in the way of the need to make changes. "The reason I got involved in this discussion was because I was concerned about innocent people losing their lives," he says. "That is what this issue is about. It is not about political elections or a campaign year, it is about life and death."

The panel was asked specifically to recommend ways of fixing the state's capital punishment system, not whether the death penalty should remain legal in Illinois. But, a narrow majority of commissioners said they would favor ending capital punishment. Former U.S. Senator Paul Simon was among them. "As long as you have capital punishment, there are no guarantees that an innocent person is not going to be put to death," says Mr. Simon.

Illinois was the first state in the country to stop executing its prisoners. In the last two years, other states have reviewed or begun reviewing their own death penalty procedures. Nationwide, there are about 3,700 prisoners on Death Row in the 38 states where capital punishment is legal.