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Illinois to Review Most Death Row Cases - 2002-10-16


The state of Illinois is reviewing the cases of nearly all of its death row inmates. Governor George Ryan ordered the reviews, two years after he imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in the state.

The Illinois Prisoner Review Board is examining the cases of 142 of the 160 inmates who have been sentenced to death. Governor Ryan said earlier this year he wanted to review most of the state's death row cases because of flaws in the Illinois capital punishment system. "Every one of the people who are on death row now was convicted under that faulty system," he says. "So, I think it is only fair that we look at their sentences and trials and we look at their convictions to make sure they were not victims of that broken system."

In January of 2000, Governor Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions, after 13 death row inmates were found to have been wrongfully convicted. He appointed a special commission to recommend ways of fixing the state's capital punishment system. The governor leaves office in January.

Among the first of the cases to be reviewed was that of Leonard Kidd, sentenced to die for the deaths of ten children in a 1980 fire, and for stabbing four people to death in 1984. Emma Burts was the mother of three children killed in the fire. She testified against granting Kidd clemency. "All I can see is the picture of my kids burnt beyond recognition," says Ms. Burts. "I have not slept in 24 hours because it is all I can see."

Defense attorneys say Kidd is mentally retarded and executing him would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney Erica Cunliffe also says Chicago police tortured him into confessing to the 1984 stabbings. "Leonard complained to his public defender who represented him that the police at Area 2 [Chicago Police station] during the lengthy interrogation had used some kind of a crude electronic device to shock him," says Ms. Cunliffe.

But prosecutor David O'Connor argued against clemency for Kidd. "There are few others on this planet that have killed more people than Leonard Kidd. To date, he has been convicted of killing 14 people. Eleven of those are children."

The Prisoner Review Board will make private recommendations to Governor Ryan, who could commute some or all of the death sentences to life in prison. Prosecutors like Dick Devine of Chicago are asking the governor to consider each case separately. Mr. Devine is also criticizing the governor for ordering the hearings in the first place. He says it forces the families of the murder victims to relive their respective tragedies. "If you are against the death penalty, go to the legislature and try to have the law changed, and if we change it, we change it," he says. "But, these people were properly convicted under the law of the State of Illinois. It is an appropriate penalty. They richly deserve that penalty and it should be carried out."

Earlier this year, the governor's panel reviewing capital punishment proposed more than 80 reforms to make it less likely an innocent person could be put to death. It recommended the death penalty be abolished in Illinois if the reforms were not enacted.

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