Illinois panel recommends sweeping changes to death penalty


Monday, April 15th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



CHICAGO (AP) _ Illinois' death penalty needs major revision, but no change can guarantee that an innocent person would never again be executed, a state panel concluded Monday after a two-year study of the system.

The panel, formed by Gov. George Ryan after he imposed a moratorium on executions two years ago, stopped short of recommending abolishing capital punishment, noting that panelists were asked only to recommend fixes to the current system. But a narrow majority of the commission would favor ending the death penalty.

``The message from this report is clear. Repair or repeal. Fix the capital punishment system or abolish it,'' said Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney and co-chairman of the panel.

The 14-member panel's report contains 85 recommendations, ranging from videotaping all interrogations of suspects to curb coerced confessions to establishing a statewide commission that would review local prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty.

The panel said it would be up to lawmakers to implement the changes and acknowledged that they would be costly.

But if implemented, the panel believes they would ``answer the governor's call to enhance significantly the fairness, justice and accuracy of capital punishment in Illinois.''

The report recommends cutting the list of 20 circumstances that warrant the death penalty to five _ murdering multiple victims, killing a police officer or firefighter, killing an officer or inmate in a correctional institution, murdering to obstruct justice or torturing the victim.

The panel also recommended banning the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants and defendants convicted solely on the evidence of a single eyewitness, informer or accomplice. And the report recommends creating a statewide DNA database and independent forensics lab.

The governor said he would study the report and would discuss it with panel members for weeks _ or even months _ before taking any action.

``I'm not going to act in haste; I'm going to deliberate,'' Ryan said.

Illinois became the first state in the nation to stop executing its prisoners, prompting other states to review their procedures. Nationwide, about 3,700 people await death for crimes committed in the 38 states that allow the death penalty.

``Many states and national leaders will look to see the recommendations that Illinois comes up with as a model for what else needs to be done in other states,'' said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., which researches capital punishment but takes no position on it.

Ryan imposed the moratorium after several cases in which men were freed from death row because new evidence exonerated them or because there were flaws in the way they were convicted. Since the 1977 reinstatement of the death penalty in Illinois, 13 men have been freed while 12 have been executed.

``This is an issue that's larger than Illinois. Illinois has had 13 cases, but most of these cases are outside of Illinois and there are problems in those places as well,'' Dieter said.

Panel co-chairman Frank McGarr, a retired federal judge, is not raising expectations about what will come of the commission's recommendations.

``The Legislature will have to decide whether they're going to adopt our improvements,'' he said.

Ryan's panel might get a cooler reception in the Illinois General Assembly than it would elsewhere in the nation. Ryan is a lame-duck governor weakened by a four-year federal corruption probe that brought indictments earlier this month against his campaign committee and two former top aides. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but decided not to seek a second term.

Some believe the General Assembly already has done enough.

Lawmakers have set up a trust fund to finance both prosecution and defense in capital cases and the Supreme Court adopted training and experience standards for lawyers and judges.

State Rep. Art Turner, sponsor of a bill that would substitute life in prison without parole for the death penalty, said neither legislative reticence nor Ryan's January departure will stand in the way of reform.

``Issues don't die or swing based upon who's in office,'' Turner said. ``The momentum for your issue should continue. The death penalty issue, the momentum has been moving, and it's starting to pick up.''