Abolition Now!

By: Noreen McNulty

Two years after Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions, all eyes are on Illinois once again. In April, Ryan’s blue-ribbon commission on capital punishment released its long-awaited report, igniting a national debate over whether the death penalty can be fixed.

In its more than 200 pages, the report documents everything that’s wrong with the death penalty in Illinois at every stage of the process -- from corrupt police officers and unreliable testimony to inadequate lawyers and an insufficient appeals process.

In its examination of the 13 exonerations of Illinois death row inmates, the commission found that "all 13 cases were characterized by relatively little solid evidence. In some cases, the evidence was so minimal that there was some question, not only as to why the prosecutor sought the death penalty, but why prosecution was even pursued against the particular defendant."

What an admission of guilt from the 14-member commission, which included nine former prosecutors, a former U.S. senator, and the general counsel to the Chicago Police Department!

The commission concluded that the death penalty system was in dire need of reform, and recommended 85 ways to fix it. Key recommendations include limiting the number of crimes punishable by death, creating a statewide panel to review cases in which the death penalty is sought, requiring videotaped interrogations by police, and banning the execution of the mentally retarded.

The implementation of the commission’s 85 recommendations would cut the number of people sentenced to death by half, according to Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley.

"Nearly half the roughly 250 people sentenced to death in the last 25 years would not have been eligible for the death penalty under one of the most far-reaching and controversial proposals from Gov. George Ryan’s commission on capital punishment," they said.

This is an astounding figure. Unfortunately, reforms simply don’t go far enough.

As the commission itself unanimously concluded, "No system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death."

In other words, there is no such thing as a "kinder, gentler death penalty."

After two years of study, a majority of the commission actually favored abolition by an 8-5 vote, with one abstention. The report noted this vote, but failed to draw the obvious conclusion of its findings -- that the death penalty should be abolished.

Now, pro-death penalty supporters are using the report to argue that problems with the state’s death penalty system can be corrected. But like a majority of the commission’s own members, growing numbers are concluding that the death penalty can’t be fixed.

"As I dealt with this issue for the last two years on a systemic basis, I just couldn’t find any way to rationalize who gets executed and who doesn’t," said commission member Scott Turow. "My own conclusion is I just don’t see how this can be fairly administered."

In Illinois, 12 death row inmates have been executed and 13 have been exonerated since 1976. The state’s abysmal record of sentencing innocent people to death is what prompted Governor Ryan to declare a moratorium.

"There is no question that there are guilty criminals on death row in Illinois, but... the odds are as good as the flip of a coin that there are also innocent men languishing behind bars," Ryan said at a recent Harvard Law School conference.

"Now I ask you, what doctor, surveyor, accountant, architect, or media person could get it wrong 50 percent of the time and still stay in business?" Ryan added.

Nationally, the number of innocent people freed from death row continues to rise. In April, this number grew to 100, when Ray Krone was released from Arizona’s death row after DNA testing proved his innocence.

Citing this disturbing trend, U.S. District Judge Jed. S. Rakoff recently said that he was ready to declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional unless the government could explain why so many condemned inmates were turning out to be innocent.

The death penalty is on the hot seat, now more than ever. Abolitionists in Illinois and across the country have a golden opportunity to make our case: Abolition now!