Illinois Death Penalty Ban Spurs Legislators Into Action


When Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions two years ago, death penalty opponents braced for what they hoped would be a string of state death bans. That didn't happen. But Ryan's action has ignited a new debate over capital punishment in legislatures across the country.

"Thanks to Gov. Ryan it's safe for politicians to talk about changing the death penalty laws," David Elliott, a spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told Stateline. "I think we would have seen movement eventually if Illinois had not acted, but Gov. Ryan proved that you can discuss the issue and not get struck by lightning."

Since his executive order halting all executions was issued on Jan. 31, 2000, only one other governor Parris Glendening of Maryland has followed suit. Glendening, a Democrat, issued his order on May 9 of this year placing a hold on death sentences until a study on how the law is imposed is completed. No other states have moratoriums in place.

But 21 state legislatures have held debates on the issue since Ryan's action, which may be an indication, death penalty opponents say, that momentum is building for changing or even repealing capital punishment laws that have put dozens of innocent people on death row since 1976. The Nebraska legislature passed a moratorium in 1999, but it was vetoed by the governor.

More importantly for death penalty opponents, seven states have moved since last year to specifically ban the execution of the mentally retarded, increasing the number that now have such statutes to 18. In addition 16 states have passed laws prohibiting the execution of youthful offenders under the age of 18.

More than two dozen states, meanwhile, have moved in the last two years to tighten their death penalty statutes to prevent innocent people from ending up on death row. Seventeen states, for example, now have laws requiring that defendants and those already convicted be given greater access to DNA testing. Even Texas, which continues to execute inmates faster than any other state, has strengthened its minimum standards requirements for the defense of those accused under its death penalty law. Texas has put to death 13 out of the 29 prisoners executed nationwide this year. The latest - Johnny Joe Martinez - was killed by lethal injection at Huntsville Prison Wednesday night (5/22).

"Those are important statistics because the Supreme Court is getting set to act on the mental retardation issue," Elliott said. "And if the court upholds those statutes... then we believe it's only a short time before they take up the juvenile issue and other questions."

Adding fuel to the debate are recent reports showing that 101 death row prisoners have been exonerated since 1973, according to figures compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. In at least 12 of those cases, DNA evidence played a significant role in proving innocence.

Although the need for greater access to DNA evidence has dominated the death penalty debate in recent years, both Ryan and Glendening argued in defense of their moratoriums that the issue for them was one of basic morality and fairness.

Ryan's announcement stunned the people of Illinois and the country at first. But when he pointed out that more death sentences in Illinois had been overturned (13 at the time) than carried out, it quieted some of the criticism of his action.

"When it comes to capital punishment, no margin for error is acceptable," he said at the time. The governor has since presented the legislature with a death penalty reform bill containing 85 recommendations aimed at preventing the innocent from being executed.

Today, there are 3,710 inmates on death row in 38 states. The Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment laws in 1976 after suspending them for three years. Since then 778 people have been executed in 32 states. Most of those state-ordered deaths 630 were carried out in the South, primarily in Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma.

It's unclear whether any innocent people have been put to death since 1976. But records show that at least 23 prisoners executed between 1900 and 1973 were later found to have been innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

The federal government, which is holding 24 prisoners on death row, has put two people to death since then, both in 2001. United States Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin is trying to prevent future executions at the federal level. He has introduced a national moratorium bill in the Senate.

"This bill is needed because the Maryland and Illinois experiences are not unique. Innocent people have been exonerated on death rows in 24 states," Feingold told Stateline. "With problems like racial disparities and the risk of executing the innocent plaguing the administration of the death penalty nationwide, the only sensible response is a timeout and thorough review."


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