CHICAGO – The panel that suggested a series of changes to the way capital cases are handled in Illinois said many of the recommendations should also apply to cases that don't involve the death penalty.
The commission was formed by Gov. George Ryan when he set a moratorium on executions two years ago. It made 85 suggestions designed to prevent innocent people from being sent to death row, but the panel said its recommendations could also keep innocents out of prison.
"What of the mistakes and injustices which undoubtedly pervade non-capital cases?" said Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney and a commission co-chair.
Ryan said he would not lift his moratorium on executions or push lawmakers to act quickly in response to the April 15 report.
The Republican governor imposed the moratorium two years ago after several men were freed from death row because of new evidence or legal flaws in their convictions. Since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 13 men have been freed and 12 have been executed.
The commission's recommendations for non-capital cases include videotaping police interrogations, creating a DNA database and introducing new procedures for lineups and photo spreads. Other suggestions included increased funding for forensic testing of indigent defendants and hiring and training more forensic scientists.
"I think we have to look at the whole system in terms of how it treats people; whether innocent people are being incarcerated," said former Sen. Paul Simon, the other commission co-chairman.
Police and prosecutors have objected to many of the commission's proposals, calling them impractical and expensive.
But the death penalty is an issue in only a small proportion of cases in Illinois, panel members said.
Omar Saunders is among those who believes changes are needed in capital and non-capital cases alike. He was sentenced to life in prison after his conviction for the 1986 rape and murder of Chicago medical student Lori Roscetti, and served nearly 15 years before he and three others were exonerated by DNA evidence.
"Those types of reforms should apply to everybody," Saunders said. "When they sentence someone to natural life, that is a death sentence."
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller, a dissenting voice on the commission, said he was concerned that a few high-profile wrongful convictions have tainted the entire system.
"The overwhelming majority of cases, there are no problems with," he said.
Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he would feel better if the reforms were extended to all felony cases.
"If we really believe as a society that it's better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer, then we really ought to put some teeth into this," he said.