Illinois Fuels Hopes for Nation's Death Penalty Opponents

A temporary halt to executions in Illinois has energized a movement that questions the fairness of capital punishment, though supporters acknowledge they're a long way from bringing change to other states.

At least five states are considering moratoriums or bans on capital punishment this year. They are considered long shots and similar previous efforts have failed.

But opponents were invigorated when the moratorium was announced by Gov. George Ryan on Monday. Ryan, saying "there is no margin for error when it comes to putting a person to death," called for a special panel to study the state's capital punishment system.

"It's like snowflakes adding up on the branch may cause the branch to break at some point," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "This is a big snowflake."

The center takes no position on the death penalty itself but has been critical of how it is applied.

Illinois is the first of the 38 states with the death penalty to halt executions while the system is examined. Thirteen inmates have been released from the state's death row since 1987, exposing what critics say are serious flaws in the criminal justice system.

In most of those cases, prosecutors acknowledged they had the wrong man after they were confronted with DNA evidence, new witnesses or confessions from others. In other cases, the inmates' convictions were thrown out on appeal and prosecutors have yet to pursue a retrial.

Illinois' problems, however, are not unique.

Last week, a man who spent 19 years in a California prison for murder was released after prosecutors who had unsuccessfully sought a death sentence said they were no longer certain of his guilt. Witnesses who had testified against him recanted.

Nationwide, 85 people have been freed from death row since 1973, according to the death penalty center. In 1997, the American Bar Association called for a nationwide moratorium, raising concerns about bias against minorities and the poor, and the availability of proper representation.

Only in Nebraska have lawmakers approved a moratorium on the death penalty, though Gov. Mike Johanns vetoed it last year. Indiana rejected an effort to abolish the penalty last year, while New Mexico lawmakers never let a measure out of committee.

Ryan's decision "is going to definitely help in our efforts to get a moratorium in Washington. But it won't help this year," said Washington state Rep. Ed Murray, whose moratorium measure would also call for a study of how capital punishment is applied to the poor and to minorities.

His bill has never had a hearing and will die in committee next week, he said. Still, "there's a slow but growing awareness that there's a problem with the death penalty, throughout the nation," Murray said.

Other states with similar measures include New Hampshire, where a Senate committee chairman says a bill to abolish capital punishment will languish in committee; New Jersey, where the governor has pushed to speed up appeals; and Pennsylvania, where the state Senate earlier this year rejected a moratorium.

A moratorium "would serve no useful purpose. It would only serve to undermine the effectiveness of the courts of this commonwealth," said Pennsylvania Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola.

Kentucky also is considering a bill to abolish the death penalty. A Maryland lawmaker said she would introduce a measure for a moratorium on Tuesday. She said she had been planning it even before the announcement in Illinois.

Missouri, where lawmakers rejected a ban last year, is being asked to reconsider.

"If there is one person who goes to their death innocent, that's wrong," said Rep. Mary Bland. The Illinois decision, she said, "gets people to think about things."

Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan commuted a death sentence at the Pope's request, but he doesn't have any doubts about the state's death penalty system, spokesman Jerry Nachtigal said.

"We believe our system of carefully reviewing each death penalty case is working," Nachtigal said.

The nation's next scheduled execution is on Friday. Robert Lee Tarver Jr., convicted of robbing and killing a grocery store owner, was scheduled to die in Alabama's electric chair. He has been appealing his conviction for 15 years.