“Repair or repeal” Ill. death penalty, panel says
By Debbie Howlett
April 16, 2002

CHICAGO - Two years after Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, a bipartisan panel on Monday handed him a blueprint for change.

The panel’s report recommends 85 specific revisions in the state’s capital punishment laws, stopping just short of calling for an end to executions.

"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 in Chicago who co-chaired the 14-member panel commissioned by the governor.

Ryan suspended executions in January 2000 after 13 men had been exonerated in capital cases that dated as far back as 17 years. He said there would be no more executions until he could reach a “moral certainty” that no innocent person would be put to death.

His panel recommended:
· Reducing to five from 20 the “aggravating” factors that make a murder a capital offense.
· Appointing a statewide panel to review local prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty.
· Videotaping confessions
· Excluding all uncorroborated eyewitness accounts at trial, including police accounts.
· Allowing a trial judge to overrule a jury’s decision to impose the death penalty.
· Establishing an independent state forensic laboratory to conduct DNA tests.

The commission also voted 8-5 , with one abstention, to recommend abolishing the death penalty. It chose not to include that in its report, saying it was beyond the scope of the commission.

Even so, if Illinois were to implement all of the changes, it would have the narrowest death penalty statute in the nation, according to experts. “It’s basically designed to abolish the death penalty,” said Josh Marquis, a prosecutor in Astoria, Ore., who leads the National District Attorneys Association. Currently, 38 states have death penalty laws and 3,711 people are on death row.

Opponents of capital punishment said they couldn’t have asked for more. “These Problems they have unearthed in Illinois are also problems in other states,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Maybe it’s time to start talking about them.”

It’s unclear, however, what will happen to the plan now that it has been handed over to the governor.

“I’m not going to act in haste,” Ryan said, suggesting it might be “weeks to months” before he submits a legislative package based on the report.

It may not matter.

Much of the plan “is headed for the trash can,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, the vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.

The Legislature already is considering nine bills dealing with capital punishment. They include some of the same reforms proposed by the Ryan commission. And it’s unlikely in an election year that lawmakers will want to consider chipping away further at capital punishment.

Any action at all, according to Dillard, will likely have to wait until the fall veto session, after the November election.