Illinois' Death Row Inmates May Receive Early Christmas Gift

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - Already committed to the idea of death penalty reform, Illinois' outgoing Republican governor is now under pressure from a group of judges to commute the sentences of 160 inmates currently on death row.

The Illinois State Senate is soon expected to take up legislation that would incorporate most of the recommendations a death penalty study committee submitted to Gov. George Ryan in April.

Republican state Senator Peter Roskam told he would formally present the proposal to the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday and that the full Senate would consider the bill "probably on Wednesday."

Roskam is not sure if Ryan will have the reforms on his desk before he leaves office in January because some differences still need to be ironed out. "It's tough to read the crystal ball here in Illinois," Roskam said.

The GOP proposal gives broader power to the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn trial court death penalty provisions. One element of the bill would also allow lower state courts to toss out a death sentence without setting a precedent for future defendants.

The Republican bill does not contain a provision that Ryan wants: a requirement that police videotape criminal confessions and interrogations.
Roskam thinks such confessions are unproductive. As an example, he cited the investigation of gang murders.

"You may be interviewing a witness, for example, and all of a sudden realize, 'I'm talking to the perpetrator of this crime.' Well, then, under the governor's commission proposal you would have to say, well, hold that thought, hang on one second while I go get a video camera or I get you into a video room."

The videotaping of witnesses, Roskam said, "is just unworkable and unwieldy and it's expensive. It's just not a practical solution."

Among the items contained in the bill, which Ryan sees as priorities, are granting capital punishment defendants more access to DNA testing, speeding up clemency requests and banning the execution of mentally retarded inmates.

Last month, the Illinois House voted down an attempt to attach death penalty legislation to a separate anti-terrorism measure.

The Illinois death penalty system has been in the national spotlight since 2000 when the state released 13 death row inmates who had been wrongly convicted. Ryan also called a moratorium on the death penalty, which had been in effect in Illinois since 1977.

"There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied," Ryan said at the time. Ironically, the Republican governor had campaigned in support of the death penalty.

Republican state Senator Ed Petka was disappointed that Ryan instituted a moratorium.

"I would not want to live in a society where individuals would wantonly kill, especially in mass numbers, and not have the government have the opportunity to consider the imposition of the death penalty," said Petka in a Springfield television interview.

As an example, Petka cited the Timothy McVeigh case.

"I don't know what the measured response would be to a Tim McVeigh, who murdered 168 people he had never seen before. The only measured, proportional response to it is to make that person face the ultimate punishment," Petka said.

Among the death penalty opponents pressuring Ryan in the final days of his gubernatorial term are 21 former federal and state judges, who sent an open letter to the governor Sunday urging him to commute the death sentences of 160 convicts whose cases may have been flawed.

"The finality of death demands that there be no question about the fairness and integrity of the process that leads to execution. We all agree that to approach that standard would require substantial reform," the letter said.

The letter concluded, "We believe it would be appropriate to commute to life without parole all death sentences in which the system's failings raise doubts about the fairness and accuracy of either the conviction or sentence."

Dennis Culloton, spokesman for Ryan, told reporters in Springfield, "The message is from a distinguished group of jurists, and I'm sure the governor will give their analysis very deep study. He shares their concerns for the caliber of justice in the Illinois capital punishment system."

State Senate Republicans may want to enact their reforms quickly before the Democrats take over the Senate majority next month.

"All you've got to do is wait and we'll be in charge, so we can take up all those issues," Democratic state Senator John Cullerton told reporters. "But for now, let's take what they're willing to give."

Republicans have had a 26-year stranglehold on the governor's office, starting with the election of James Thompson in the fall of 1976 to the first of his four terms. But that's about to change as U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich prepares to be inaugurated as Illinois' first Democratic governor since Dan Walker.

Blagojevich's victory in last month's election led a near-sweep by the Democrats of the statewide offices. And in the General Assembly, the Democrats took control of the Senate away from the Republicans and strengthened their hold on the House.

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