Illinois Close Call Kindles New Debate Over Capital Punishment

 

Free but penniless after nearly 17 years of unjust imprisonment, Anthony Porter has become an unwitting focal point in an intensifying debate over Illinois' use -- or potential misuse -- of the death penalty.

Somehow, at each turn, pure luck intervened to stop this admitted former gang member from completing his journey to the executioner's chamber. A low IQ, a sympathetic Illinois Supreme Court and a group of ambitious journalism students helped make Porter the 10th Illinois Death Row inmate in 22 years to be freed after new evidence surfaced implicating someone else.

Now, Republican Gov. George Ryan and other defenders of the state's capital punishment system find themselves on the hot seat as the divisive issue appears ready to confront the Illinois General Assembly this spring.

The fallout has even spread to neighboring Indiana, where lawmakers are re-evaluating that state's death penalty statute after being moved by the extraordinarily high rate of defendants being wrongfully sentenced to die in Illinois since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1977.

The run of luck for Porter, convicted of a 1982 double murder in Chicago, began less than 48 hours before he was to have been given a lethal injection last September. After he had already chosen what his final meal would be, the state Supreme Court stayed his execution over concerns that his low IQ might prevent him from understanding the gravity of his situation.

That delay bought time for Northwestern University professor David Protess and his crusading journalism students - dubbed by Chicago headline writers as the "Angels of Death Row" - to uncover evidence that a Milwaukee man may havecommitted the slayings for which Porter was convicted.

"The system worked. The process did work. Sure, it took 17 years, but it also took 17 years for that journalism professor to sic his kids on that case,"Ryan spokesman Dave Urbanek said shortly after Porter's release in early February.

Those comments generated intense criticism from death penalty foes, prompting the Ryan administration to later strike a more sensitive tone with talk of fighting on Porter's behalf to win reimbursement from the state for wrongful imprisonment and raising funding for public defenders.

But those gestures haven't stopped death penalty opponents from holding up Porter's case as proof that the state's capital punishment system needs to be overhauled, if not scrapped entirely. And, they believe their argumentscannot help but carry some resonance because of Porter's difficulties adjusting to freedom he never should have lost.

"I need help. I've got nothing but one pair of pants and one shirt," he said. "Everybody keeps talking about a job. A job's all right, but they took 17 years out of my life for something I didn't do. What possible kind of jobcan I get now?"

Some House Democrats have offered to dip into their campaign coffers to donate to a trust fund established to help Porter and his family buy clothing and other basics. Those same lawmakers are pushing two bills that wereintroduced urging Gov. Ryan to impose a moratorium on use of the death penalty while the 160 remaining cases on Death Row can be re-examined for mistakes.

With the intense publicity of the Porter case fresh in everyone's minds, that legislation could set the stage for some of the most heated debate in the legislature this spring. But the bills' long-term prospects appear bleak because Gov. Ryan opposes a moratorium, as does Senate President James "Pate" Philip, a staunch death-penalty supporter.

"We have to make sure we have an overwhelming set of circumstances that can call for the death penalty," Ryan said. "By the same token, I don't want somebody to get off that's commited some heinous crime because we've created amoratorium."

The governor also is being pressured by Democrats to hold a summit of top legislative and judicial leaders to discuss the Porter case and the state's response to it. After initially waffling on the question, Ryan closed the dooron a summit. "I don't see a need for a knee-jerk reaction at this point," he said.

The governor is not alone in opposing a moratorium. Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan, a former DuPage County state's attorney whose office sent accused murderer Rolando Cruz to Death Row only to see his conviction overturned, is against a halt in executions.

As an alternative, the attorney general has proposed increasing funding for court-appointed legal teams defending condemned inmates and creating a new clemency review board to deal exclusively with death penalty cases.

Right now, Gov. Ryan's focus seems almost entirely on preparations for the state's fiscal 2000 budget.

But as much as he might prefer to shuffle the Porter matter behind other priorities, the governor won't be able to escape having to deal with the death penalty question. The next planned execution comes March 17, when Andrew Kokoraleis is due to be executed for a ritualistic mutilation and murder in DuPage County near Chicago.

 
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