Keeping It Real

A Way to Go

By: Illinois death row prisoner Stanley Howard

On July 17, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law the first of many bills designed to reform the justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and innocent people from being executed. This bill makes Illinois the first state to require murder confessions to be videotaped. Police and prosecutors have two years to get in full compliance.

This legislation didn't come easy. Police and prosecutors were initially against such a measure, claiming that "it would be cumbersome for investigators trying to unravel the hundreds of murder cases in Illinois every year." This made it one of the most difficult reforms for some state officials (including Blagojevich) to endorse.

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty held many events over the last few years to highlight the problem of forced confessions. For example, we testified in front of the death penalty commission set up by former Gov. Ryan, raising the issue of tortured confessions and the Death Row 10. The commission later endorsed videotaping among their 85 reform recommendations.

Many well-publicized victories helped create a climate leading to the passage of this reform. These included the firing of torture ringleader Jon Burge, the granting of new court hearings, the appointment of a special prosecutor to consider filing criminal charges against those involved, and the removal of the entire state's attorney's office from overseeing Death Row 10 cases.

And of course, former Gov. Ryan gave our struggle a huge boost when he pardoned four Death Row 10 members and proclaimed to the world: "We have evidence from four men, who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly provided. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system." This was a clear indictment against coerced and false confessions.

This issue proved to be a hot political topic that just wouldn't go away, which eventually softened the stern opposition to taping--allowing the legislation to overwhelmingly pass the Illinois House (109-7) and the Senate (58-0). "We think its time has come," said Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriff's Association. "If there is police misconduct, we need to have evidence of it to get rid of bad cops and to protect good cops."

Making videotaping mandatory is a flat-out admission that there is a serious problem with coercive tactics being used to get people to confess to crimes they did not commit. Still, this legislation is not going to stop corrupt cops (like the many Burge torturers still on the Chicago police force today) and prosecutors from maneuvering their way around the camera's eye. Nor is it going to bring justice to the remaining Death Row 10 or the countless others still imprisoned on the basis of coerced and false confessions.

This is a crucial bill and I applaud its passage. It is a giant step towards improving the criminal justice system. But I'm totally against the bottom line agenda of trying to reform a death penalty system that's too broken to be fixed. As I explained in my August 2002 column, "Reforms are only a trick to restore public confidence in America's killing machine."

To Keep It Real, even if a mountain of much needed reforms were implemented, errors would still be inevitable and frequent, and innocent people would still be sentenced to death. Let's end this barbaric madness--abolish the death penalty.

Write to Stanley Howard, #N71620, Joliet, IL 60434.