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Division for Media Relations and Communication Services - American Bar Association


by Robert E. Hirshon
President, American Bar Association

The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment recently issued a report containing more than 80 recommendations which when implemented will make that state�s death penalty system substantially fairer and more just. The report makes it clear that the task of reform will be daunting. The report urges fundamental changes, some of them expensive. But in the view of the commissioners, their recommendations are not optional. They are necessary if Illinois is to reform its system to minimize the risk of executing the innocent.

Some politicians complain that the state of Illinois cannot afford to do the job right. But Gov. George Ryan stated the issue confronting state leaders succinctly: "We�re talking about life and death. We�re not talking about losing an election."

Ryan created the commission two years ago, after 13 Illinois death row inmates were exonerated of the crimes for which they were sentenced. He declared a moratorium on executions while the commission did its work. Now, said Ryan, if the state is to resume executions, it must first find the money to fix the system.

Illinois, having invested in its study, should begin the implementation process. The implementation of the suggested reforms undoubtedly will be difficult. But the alternative � risk of executing the innocent� is unacceptable.

The difficulties in reforming should not excuse other states from implementing moratoriums on executions while they complete the rigorous process of examining the flawed systems they currently employ. And flawed they are. The problems identified in Illinois are not unique to that state�s system. Too much evidence demonstrates otherwise. Twenty-two people have been exonerated and released from Florida�s death row, seven people each from Oklahoma, Arizona, and Texas, and six each from Georgia and Louisiana. It is inevitable that there are more cases of wrongful death sentences across this country. For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Missouri may have executed two innocent persons and that three others with strong defenses remain on that state�s death row.

The Illinois report also demonstrates the fallacy of the approach some states have taken � examining only part of their death penalty systems. Where states have undertaken limited reviews, they have made little headway in implementing even modest reforms. A state must examine its entire death penalty system and provide the resources to do so. Such an examination includes quality of defense services, guidelines for clemency proceedings, review of jury instructions and much, much more. Only by reviewing its entire system can a state understand how each flaw can compound error to frustrate just and accurate results.

As long as government seeks to punish criminals by death, government leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the death penalty is imposed under the most fair and equitable system possible. To determine what such a system demands, all states with capital punishment should follow Illinois� excellent example and conduct serious, in-depth investigations of their death penalty laws and processes. To help states identify their problems, the American Bar Association has prepared protocols that assists jurisdictions in formulating comprehensive studies and evaluating the results. The Illinois report provides additional valuable guidance for states� evaluations.

Meanwhile, state leaders should take a step that costs very little in actual dollars �declaring moratoriums on executions pending their review. The executions of those already sentenced can wait until justice is assured.

Since 1997, the American Bar Association has called for a nationwide moratorium on executions because of overwhelming evidence of pervasive problems in the administration of the death penalty

The tools for change exist. It is time for states to use them.