Illinois Moratorium Puts Fresh Focus On Death Penalty


Illinois Gov. George Ryan's declaration of a moratorium on executions in his state could spare neither convicted Texas murderer Ponchai Wilkerson nor California serial killer Darrell Rich from lethal injections this month.

Nor did it aid Arizona inmate Patrick Poland in an eleventh-hour appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Seven weeks have passed since Ryan's landmark announcement halted executions in Illinois, pending reforms that assure him "that no innocent person will be executed." No other state has followed suit yet and executions continue at a record pace.

Texas, by far the nation's leading executioner with 211 since it resumed executions in 1982, put a second inmate to death last week the state's twelfth of the year. Virginia followed with its third execution this year.

But the fact that other states haven't fallen in line behind Illinois since the pro-death penalty governor's decision doesn't faze moratorium supporters, who cheer the new scrutiny it is bringing to the nation's system of capital punishment. With the issue now on the table, observers say it may be some time before other states take similar action.

"This is a debate that's probably going to go on for the next few years," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

In January, after a lot of talk among state officials, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of capital punishment, Ryan said Illinois' "shameful record" of wrongful convictions led him to favor a moratorium. Since it reinstated the death penalty, Illinois has reversed the convictions of 13 death row inmates and executed 12, more than any other northern state.

In all, 87 condemned prisoners nationwide have had their convictions overturned since the Supreme Court in 1976 cleared the way for a resumption of the death penalty after a four-year hiatus.

"The situation in Illinois was at a crisis and there had to be an action. So far I think most states are saying, we're not at that crisis stage'," Dieter said

"The fact that this year ten states don't impose a moratorium or abolish the death penalty is less important than that the discussion has started and that momentum not be lost," said Elisabeth Semel, who directs the Death Penalty Representation Project for the American Bar Association.

The ABA, which does not advocate abolishing capital punishment except in the case of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded, first called for a moratorium and improved state standards for capital defense in February 1997.

Lawmakers in at least eight states Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Washington have introduced moratorium bills so far this year and a group of Virginia lawmakers has indicated that it will introduce a parallel bill next year.

Movement is afoot in other states to trot past a moratorium toward full repeal.

In Oregon, former U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R) has initiated an effort to put a repeal option on the November ballot.

Earlier this month, the GOP-dominated New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to abolish the state's dormant death penalty. The vote was a largely symbolic move that Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) says she will veto if it passes the Senate. Of the 38 states that reenacted the death penalty, after the Supreme Court ruled capital punishment as it then existed unconstitutional in 1972, New Hampshire is the only one without a single inmate on death row.

New Hampshire's attorney general adamantly opposes repeal, saying it will weaken the state's ability to obtain a guilty plea in exchange for a lesser sentence.

Eight states Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota and Tennessee -- have never executed anyone under their reenacted death penalty statutes. Colorado, Idaho, Ohio and Wyoming have executed one apiece: Ohio's first execution took place last year.

Meanwhile, Indiana has joined Illinois, Maryland and Nebraska in authorizing a review of its capital justice system. Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D) directed his state's Criminal Law Study Commission to explore the causes of wrongful convictions, evaluate the training and pay of defense attorneys and analyze links between race and sentencing in capital cases. Maryland's study comes as Gov. Parris Glendening, a career-long death penalty supporter, prepares to review high-profile allegations of a mistaken conviction in his state.

Dieter declines to guess whether any of the moratorium or abolition bills will become law but says that concerns about wrongful convictions are deflating public support for the death penalty: "Even supporters of the death penalty feel reason for pause and concern."

Sixty-six percent of Americans still favor capitol punishment, according to a recent Gallup poll, but that is the lowest level of support in twenty years.

The level of support drops to just over fifty percent when respondents are offered the option of life without parole. And the list of organizations signing on to a grassroots push for a halt is growing rapidly. City councils in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Va., New Haven, Conn., Pittsburgh and San Francisco have adopted resolutions calling for a moratorium. The Catholic Cardinal of Philadelphia took the rare step in February of testifying for a moratorium before the Pennsylvania legislature.

Catholics are especially visible in moratorium and abolition efforts. One activist attributes the strong Catholic involvement to persistent leadership of the U.S. bishops and Pope John Paul II to stop executions, and the 1995 film Dead Man Walking which was about the death row ministry of a Louisiana nun.

"The death penalty is really a form of vengeance ... which is not in accordance with Christian teaching. It doesn't mean that you have to forgive them and say, you can come out of prison,' but you can forgive them and still punish them with" a life sentence, said Frank McNeirney, national coordinator of Maryland-based Catholics Against Capitol Punishment.

Only three states with the death penalty do not offer life without parole: Kansas, New Jersey and New Mexico. None of these states has performed an execution since 1976.

While moratorium efforts have grabbed attention, some states mainly in the South are taking steps to bolster capital punishment by ensuring alternatives to the vanishing electric chair and streamlining the appeals process in the name of swifter justice.

The result is a national picture of capital punishment that Semel calls "schizophrenic."

Last year, the United States set a national record for the most executions in one year -- 98. Half of these took place in Texas and Virginia. Although Texas recently acted to offer life without parole as a sentencing option, Virginia holds distinction as the only state where executions currently outpace new death sentences.

Florida has had twenty wrongful convictions, and appeals have overturned three out of every four death sentences reviewed last year. The Florida legislature has responded by seeking to limit appeals.

Nevertheless, American historian and death penalty opponent William S. McFeely, cautions against glib regional divisions like Old South versus liberal North in death penalty activity around the country. McFeely, whose 1999 book Proximity to Death tells the story of a group of defense attorneys fighting capital punishment in Georgia, points to California and Pennsylvania as states where death sentences come relatively easily.

McFeely applauds the moratorium for making people "get out of their genteel shells and really look at the situation." But he is wary that a moratorium may simply lead to blue-ribbon review commissions built upon what he sees as the impossible premise that any system could be "foolproof."

Semel still hopes more lawmakers and state officials will enter the debate. "How long has it been since there's actually been discussion and a debate and a series of questions? That's the thing that's important," she said.


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