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The Illinois Death Penalty Report - A Commentary

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – Before Texas executes another convict, anyone involved in investigating, prosecuting, defending, or judging serious crime should read a new report from Illinois. The document examines that state's capital punishment system from the time of the crime until the time of execution. The 207-page report is thoughtful, fair and exhaustive. While focused on the Illinois system, it suggests reforms that many states and police departments should adopt.

The report was written at the request of Illinois Gov. George Ryan. In January 2000, Gov. Ryan halted all executions after a series of embarrassing wrongful convictions were exposed - sometimes by university journalism students. Gov. Ryan appointed a commission to review the capital punishment system and recommend reforms that would make the system "fair, just and accurate."

The commission was led by a former federal judge, with former Senator Paul Simon serving as co-chair and, William Webster, a past director of the CIA and FBI, as special advisor. It was an impressive, experienced group of individuals. The commission reviewed investigative, prosecutorial, trial and post-conviction procedures. It offered concrete suggestions. For instance, commission members felt that law enforcement agencies should videotape suspect interrogations from start to finish. The change would encourage police to follow all departmental and constitutional guidelines - and prevent suspects from later recanting or claiming that their confessions had been forced.

The commission also suggested that investigators use "double-blind" techniques when asking witnesses to identify suspects. In other words, whenever possible, an officer who doesn't know who has been identified as the suspect, should guide witnesses through a lineup. That prevents investigators from inadvertently cueing a witness to identify a certain individual.

The commission recommended changes in a variety of other areas, including the use DNA evidence, the crimes that draw the death penalty, jury instructions, and data collection on murder trials. Commissioners recommended barring the use of capital punishment for defendants with "reduced mental capacity," and for those convicted solely on the testimony of so-called "jail house informants" or a single eye-witness.

The report concluded somberly with two general observations. First, it stated that Illinois' capital punishment system could not be considered fair, just and accurate without serious reforms. Second, it said that the same issues that can compromise the fairness and accuracy of capital cases, can also compromise non-capital cases. Most homicide trials do not involve the death penalty, and because of that, those cases are subject to less review. No one knows what percentage of all Illinois inmates might have been wrongly convicted.

These broad issues make the report compelling reading for anyone interested in criminal justice. Texas officials, unfortunately, don't seem interested. Without having looked at the report, a staff member of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee said it probably wasn't relevant to Texas. The Governor's office didn't return a phone call asking about it. And the directors of the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council and Board of Criminal Justice weren't familiar with it.

Texas has more than twice as many people on death row as Illinois, but shows little interest in learning whether its capital punishment system is fair, just or accurate.

That ought to be a crime.


Jennifer Nagorka is a writer in Dallas.