Illinois Stops Executions
Illinois Stops Executions
Date: February 2000
Source: "Illinois Stops Executions." The New Abolitionist 14 (February 2000).
About the Author: This article was published without a byline, and was written by a staff writer for The New Abolitionist, a periodical written and run by the Campaign To End The Death Penalty, an organization based in Chicago, Illinois.
The history of the death penalty has been fraught with controversy for decades, since the Supreme Court eliminated its use in all states as a means of criminal punishment in June of 1972. At that time, the Court pronounced the death penalty to be random and proven to be racially discriminatory. In November 1973, however, the state of Illinois reinstated the death penalty when then-Governor Dan Walker signed a new, supposedly improved law into effect. By 1975, the Illinois Supreme Court nullified the new law as invalid. So began an ongoing debate as to whether or not the death penalty could be considered a just and practical means of punishment—and whether any judicial body had the legal and moral right to enforce it—or whether the chance of putting an innocent person to death was too great to risk, questions that reflect similar debates around the world.
"It's clear that the system is broken."
This is how an aide to Illinois Gov. George Ryan described the death-penalty system in Illinois. On January 31, Ryan said he was stopping all executions in Illinois because the system is "fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare … Until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate."
There is no time limit on Ryan's action, but it is similar to the proposals for a moratorium on capital punishment that abolitionists have been fighting for.
Ryan is a Republican who still supports the death penalty. He only called a moratorium because of growing pressure. Two weeks earlier, Steve Manning became the 13th innocent man to be released from Illinois' death row. His conviction was based mainly on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch—which was proved false by FBI investigators.
With Manning's release, Illinois has freed more men from death row than it has executed since 1977. And there is growing talk that a 14th innocent man will be released—Edgar Hope.
Ryan's action is the first halt on executions in any state. Over the last year, lawmakers in six other states proposed moratoriums, but none became law. Illinois' action will add momentum to the moratorium movement.
This is a victory for abolitionists. But it is only a first step. Ryan wants to create a special panel to study the death-penalty system. If he packs it with fellow Republicans, the moratorium will be short-lived. The commission should be made up of people who know the true face of this system—like Dennis Williams and Darby Tillis, two of the 13 innocent ex-death row prisoners.
There are many arguments against the use of the death penalty. Foremost is the fact that it negates a human being's right to life, and that it is completely irrevocable. This is of particular concern because there is a strong chance that an innocent person might be executed before the truth of the case comes to light. In addition to these concerns, there is no indication that the death penalty has proven to act as a deterrent against the types of violent crimes that result in its application.
On an international level, the death penalty has lost popularity over the last thirty years. Amnesty International, an organization dedicated to the protection of human rights, sponsored the International Conference on the Death Penalty in 1977, in Stockholm, Sweden, in an attempt to encourage the participating nations to consider alternate forms of punishment and to stop the use of the death penalty. At that time, sixteen countries had abolished the death penalty. Over the next three decades, an additional seventy nations eliminated the use of corporal punishment. Since the late 1990s, the United Nations Com-mission on Human Rights has also taken an active stance against the death penalty, passing an annual resolution encouraging member nations to at least establish a moratorium on executions.
In the United States, the death penalty remains an available means of punishment in thirty-eight out of fifty states, as of early 2006. Despite the elimination of corporal punishment by the Supreme Court in the 1970s, numerous states enacted laws that reinstated the death penalty, and between 1977 and 2005, 1,004 individuals were executed. The state of Illinois experienced several reversals by various courts in their attempt to reinstate the death penalty, but ultimately succeeded in reviving it. On September 12, 1990, death row inmate Charles Walker ceased to appeal his sentence and became the first person to be executed in Illinois under the new legislation. On May 10, 1994, convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy became the first involuntary execution in Illinois in the seventeen years since the death penalty was reinstated.
By 2000, however, more Illinois death row inmates had been exonerated than had actually been executed, adding fuel to the argument that there is a real risk of sending innocent individuals to their deaths. By declaring a moratorium on executions in January 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan took a stand that indicated it was unacceptable to take that risk, no matter how many guilty people escaped execution as a result Ryan proceeded to form the Commission on Capital Punishment, whose purpose was to examine the weaknesses in the Illinois death penalty administration, and to determine how it might be reformed.
Various committees continued to find further indications that it was unlikely that the death penalty could continue without the potential for miscarriages of justice. In May of 2001, the Center on Wrongful Convictions reported that forty-six innocent Americans had been convicted of crimes based on either mistaken or deliberately false eyewitness testimony, and sent to death row as a result. A later report stated that since the 1950s, twenty-six wrongful executions had been carried out, based on convictions that were the results of false confessions.
In June of 2001, lawyers in charge of capital appeals for the Office of the State Appellate Defender decided to start the process of attempting to gain clemency for the death row inmates in the state of Illinois. While deals were being considered, Governor Ryan suggested that he himself might offer clemency to the inmates in question. This potential plan is a natural continuation of his earlier moratorium on executions. Ryan continued to consider the idea for several years, meanwhile granting pardons or clemency to several death row inmates. Then in January 2003, shortly before leaving office, Ryan announced his decision to go through with his intentions, and proceeded to provide all death row inmates in Illinois with clemency.
Amnesty International. "The Death Penalty." 〈http://web.amnesty.org/pages/deathpenalty-index-eng〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).
DeathPenaltyInfo.org. 〈http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).
History of the Death Penalty in Illinois. "30 Years of the Death Penalty." 〈http://www.truthinjustice.org/dphistory-IL.htm〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).
World Socialist Web Site. "Illinois Death Penalty Report Reveals Widespread Abuse." 〈http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/apr2002/illi-a27.shtml〉 (accessed February 27, 2006).