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ILLINOIS AT VANGUARD IN DEATH PENALTY REFORMS

By Dennis W. Archer, President,
American Bar Association

 

The people of Illinois are to be congratulated. 

 

They have completed an arduous four-year pursuit of a more fair and just approach to capital punishment.  While serious decisions remain ahead as the state's leaders contemplate what to do about the death penalty, Illinois has accomplished something achieved by no other jurisdiction in the U.S., something the American Bar Association has urged since 1997 on every jurisdiction that imposes sentences of death.

 

We believe that every capital punishment jurisdiction should undertake a thorough review of death penalty procedures, and then enact reforms to ensure fair and equitable justice that, among other things, minimizes the risk of executing innocent persons.  Until that happens, we urge a moratorium on executions in each state, and in the federal system.

 

Illinois enacted the first such moratorium nearly four years ago, when then-Gov. George Ryan appointed a commission to recommend changes in a system so flawed that more than a dozen persons were released from death row. That commission, the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich should be commended for enacting historic reforms that became law in November.  Even more, the people of Illinois deserve credit for allowing their leaders to take these courageous steps to ensure that justice undertaken in the name of the people is fair and accurate. 

 

Leaders in other states should be emboldened by the support shown by Illinois voters to demonstrate that same courage, to move their systems closer to delivering true justice to their citizens who rely on courts, police and legal systems to protect them both from crime and from systems that are racist, that provide inadequate defense or that lack due process.

 

The ABA may not agree with all of Illinois' changes.  We may believe other reforms still are needed.  But we applaud Illinois' leadership in tackling this emotional and high-profile issue. And we hope for further advances as that state's leaders contemplate the status of the moratorium.

 

But many other states face the same flaws in their systems that plagued Illinois, and we have seen that demonstrated in cases overturned as science advances evidence, as courts review procedures and as death-sentenced individuals are proven innocent.

 

The American people understand that administration of capital punishment may never be perfect, but they expect their government to ensure the best system it can, one that operates fairly, that gives each accused person due process and one premised on equal protection of the law for all citizens. 

 

Illinois proved that the public will support a serious approach toward achieving that end.   It is up to each state that seeks to impose capital punishment to meet that challenge.