Illinois panel recommends death penalty reforms
CHICAGO (CNN) -- A panel appointed by Illinois Gov. George Ryan to examine the state's death penalty has concluded the punishment has been applied too often in the state since it was re-established in 1977, and the process must be reformed.
In a report issued Monday -- two years after Ryan blasted the state's "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row" and halted executions -- the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment said its 15 members agreed more public funding is needed to help assure a higher degree of confidence, if the death penalty is retained.
"We are unanimous in agreeing that reform of the capital punishment system is required in order to enhance the level of scrutiny at all junctures in capital cases," according to a summary of the recommendations.
"They took on a seemingly insurmountable task," Ryan said after receiving the findings. He said he would have no comment on them until he'd had a chance to study them.
"I may not accept all the recommendations, but I'm certainly going to do what I can," Ryan said.
Although some panelists disagreed with some of the proposals, commission members said they feel that, if implemented, the recommendations would increase the "fairness, justice and accuracy" of capital punishment in Illinois.
Because the death penalty appears to have the support of a majority of Illinois citizens, the panel said it concentrated on proposing reforms rather than debating the merits of capital punishment.
Despite this, a narrow majority of the commission believes the death penalty should be abolished in Illinois, either because of moral concerns, because they feel no system can guarantee total fairness and lack of error, or because the resources spent on the death penalty outweigh the benefits.
Some members voted to recommend to the governor that if the legislature doesn't substantially implement its proposals, the moratorium on the death penalty be continued indefinitely.
"All members of the commission have emerged from our deliberations with a renewed sense of the extraordinary complexities presented by the question of capital punishment," the report said.
"As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won't be put to death," former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a commission member, told reporters.
"It is not a deterrent. It is in a very real sense a revenge by society. ... Revenge is not a proper motivation by the government. Justice should be our aim. I think these recommendations ... will improve our system of justice," Simon said.
The commission has been meeting in secret since its formation in January 2000.
Since then, it has studied 13 Illinois defendants who were released from death row after their convictions were overturned, and all capital punishment decisions. Members met with surviving family members of murder victims, death penalty opponents and national experts, and performed other research, including surveys.
The panel also includes attorney and author Scott Turow.
The moratorium was to stay in place until the panel's work was done.
Among other recommendations by the commission:
-- The list of 20 factual circumstances under which a defendant is eligible for the death penalty should be eliminated in favor of simpler criteria;
-- There should be uniform standards across the state;
-- The impact of testimony from jailhouse snitches should be limited;
-- Confessions should be videotaped to ensure they were not coerced.
Members may also recommend special training for prosecutors and judges to minimize cases like that of former death row inmate Rolando Cruz, tried three separate times for a murder to which another man had confessed.
"It was worse than hell," Cruz says. "I would rather go to hell and meet Satan than have to go back to death row."
Ryan said he wanted to "prevent another Anthony Porter," referring to an Illinois death row inmate whose sentence was reversed in March 1999. He was released after another man confessed on video tape to the double murder that sent Porter to death row.
The case was broken by an investigator and journalism students from Northwestern University who had found another witness was pressured by police to testify against Porter -- who had come within two days of execution the year before and was spared only because the court wanted to examine his mental competency.
Porter's case led to a series in the Chicago Tribune exposing serious flaws in the death penalty system.
Ryan, a death penalty supporter, said he wanted to give Illinois citizens complete confidence that a defendant's guilt was fully established before he was put to death for a crime. Ryan said the number of death sentences and criminal convictions that had been overturned raised "serious concerns" about the process by which capital punishment is imposed.
The commission was charged with reviewing the capital punishment process to determine why it had failed, and examining ways to safeguard the process from investigation through trial, judicial appeal, and executive review.
-- CNN Chicago Bureau Chief Jeff Flock contributed to this report.
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