CHICAGO -- Governor George H. Ryan today received the report from his Commission on Capital Punishment, which makes more than 80 recommendations for change in the capital punishment system in Illinois. The recommendations include the creation of a statewide panel to review prosecutors' request for the death penalty; banning death sentences on the mentally retarded; significantly reducing the number of death eligibility factors; videotaping interrogations of homicide suspects; and controlling the use of testimony by jail house informants.
The Commission's report is the product of two year’s extensive research and analysis of Illinois' capital punishment system from initial police investigation through trial, appeal and post-conviction review. After considering all of their proposed reforms, a majority of the Commission would favor that the death penalty be abolished in Illinois. The Commission concluded, however, that if capital punishment is to be retained as a lawful penalty, reform of the present capital punishment system is important to better ensure that it is fair, just and accurate. The Commission also concluded Governor Ryan and the next governor should consider the reforms that need to be made to the capital punishment system when considering clemency applications in capital cases.
"It is entirely appropriate to consider how those changes might have made a difference to defendants when reaching determinations about whether or not a death
sentence should be upheld on the merits or whether mercy should be extended in light of all the circumstances."
Gov. Ryan said he will carefully study the report and deliberate on its recommendations. "I owe it to everyone who believes in justice and to everyone touched by our legal system to reflect upon this Commission's findings," Gov. Ryan said. "There are some who will be impatient, who will demand quick solutions, now that I have this report. But, our experience in Illinois with the capital punishment system has gained worldwide attention. What we do from this point forward, may be an example to the rest of the country and the world.
"I want to thank each of the Commission members for donating their time and extraordinary efforts to the public good. Their hard work and comprehensive study of this difficult issue is appreciated by all of us as citizens of this great State."
Governor Ryan appointed the commission in March, 2000 after declaring the moratorium on January 31, 2000. At the time he said, "Until I can be sure that no innocent man or woman is facing lethal injection, no one will meet that fate." The vast majority of the Commission's recommendations and proposed reforms were reached by unanimous decision of the Commission members. Other recommendations were reached by majority vote, and in some of those cases, alternative proposals were suggested by the minority. The recommendations taken as a whole, if implemented, represent essential reforms to Illinois' capital punishment system.
Some of the recommendations include:
- Creating a statewide review panel to conduct a pre-trial review of prosecutorial decisions to seek capital punishment. The panel would be comprised of four prosecutors and a retired judge.
- Significantly reducing the current list of death eligibility factors from twenty to five including: murder of a peace officer or firefighter; murder in a correctional facility; the murder of two or more persons; the intentional murder of a person involving torture; and any murder committed by a suspected felon in order to obstruct the justice system.
- Banning the imposition of the death penalty for defendants found to be mentally retarded.
- No person may be sentenced to death based solely on uncorroborated single eyewitness or accomplice testimony or the uncorroborated testimony of jail house informants.
- Recommending other reforms concerning the use of jail house informants who purport to have information about the case or statements allegedly made by the defendant, including requiring a preliminary hearing to be conducted by the court as to the reliability of such witnesses and their proposed testimony, full-disclosure of benefits conferred for such testimony, early disclosure to the defense about the background of such witnesses and special cautionary instructions to the jury.
- Videotaping the entire interrogation of homicide suspects at a police station, and not merely the confession.
- Allowing trial judges to concur or reverse a jury's death sentence verdict. This will allow the trial judge to take into account potential improper influences such as passion and prejudice that may have influenced a jury's verdict, consider potential residual doubt about the defendant's absolute guilt, consider trial strategies of counsel, credibility of witnesses and the actual presentation of evidence, which may differ from what was anticipated in making pre-trial rulings in either admitting or excluding evidence.
- The Illinois Supreme Court should review all death sentences to determine if the sentence is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, if death was the appropriate sentence given aggravating and mitigating factors and whether the sentence was imposed due to some arbitrary factor.
The report contains six recommendations relating to eyewitness identification for procedures that should be required when police conduct a "lineup" or "photospread." These recommendations include:
- Having someone who is unaware of the suspect's identity conduct the lineup. Having police tell the eyewitness that the suspected perpetrator may not be in the lineup or photospread.
- Taking a clear written statement of any statements made by eyewitnesses as to the level of confidence they have in identifying a suspect, and
- When possible, videotaping both the lineup procedures and the witnesses confidence statement.
- Adequate funding to eliminate backlogs and expand DNA testing and evaluation, including continued support for a more comprehensive DNA database.
- Support the Supreme Court's recommendation for a capital case trial bar and requiring judges to be pre-certified before presiding over capital cases. As part of regular training for judges and counsel, as suggested by the Supreme Court and the Commission, improvements must be made in disseminating information and creating manuals and check lists to be used by counsel and the courts. There must also be better reporting of information concerning capital cases so that the fairness and accuracy of the capital punishment system can be adequately assessed.
- Revise Illinois' complicated and confusing statute so that juries can understand simply that they must determine, in light of all the evidence and the mitigating and aggravating circumstances, whether the death penalty is the appropriate sentence.
- To eliminate confusion and improper speculation, juries should be instructed as to all the possible sentencing alternatives before they consider the appropriateness of imposing a death sentence.
- Like defendants in any other criminal case, capital defendants should be afforded the opportunity to make a statement to those who will be deciding whether to impose the ultimate punishment allowed by the state, a sentence of death.
- Leaders in both the executive and legislative branches should significantly improve the resources available to the criminal justice system in order to permit the meaningful implementation of reforms.
With these and many other suggested reforms, the Commission believes that Illinois' capital punishment system would be more just and better enabled to ensure fair and accurate results. However, the report recognizes that "no system, given human
nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is ever again sentenced to death." This report represents the Commission's best efforts to ensure, that we strive for perfection and a more just, fair and accurate criminal justice system.
The Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment’s full report will be available online at 1:00 P.M. CST.