SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A panel formed to revamp Illinois' death penalty has recommended dozens of changes — including drastically reducing the number of circumstances warranting execution — but a majority of panelists doubts the system can be fixed.
The panel, formed by Gov. George Ryan after he imposed a moratorium on executions two years ago, stopped short of recommending abolishing capital punishment, noting that panelists were asked only to recommend fixes to the current system. But a narrow majority of the commission would favor ending the death penalty, the panel wrote in a summary of their report, obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
"Those favoring abolition did so either because of moral concerns, because of a conclusion that no system can or will be constructed which sufficiently guarantees that the death penalty will be applied without arbitrariness or error or because of a determination that the social resources expended on capital punishment outrun its benefits," the summary said.
The 14-member panel's report, to be released at a news conference in Chicago on Monday, contains 85 recommendations, ranging from videotaping all interrogations of suspects in capital cases to establishing a statewide commission that would determine whether local prosecutors can seek the death penalty.
The current list of 20 circumstances that warrant the death penalty would be reduced to five — murdering multiple victims, killing a police officer or firefighter, killing an officer or inmate in a correctional institution, murdering to obstruct justice or torturing the victim.
The panel also recommended banning the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants and defendants convicted solely on the evidence of a single eyewitness, informer or accomplice.
Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said he couldn't predict how the governor would react to the commission's statement that the system can't be made foolproof. Ryan has said he needs to be sure with "moral certainty" that no innocent person is executed, Culloton said.
"Ninety-nine percent isn't good enough," he added.
Illinois became the first state in the nation to stop executing its prisoners, prompting other states to review their procedures. Nationwide, about 3,700 people await death for crimes committed in the 38 states that allow the death penalty.
"Many states and national leaders will look to see the recommendations that Illinois comes up with as a model for what else needs to be done in other states," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., which researches capital punishment but takes no position on it.
Ryan imposed the moratorium after several cases in which men were freed from death row because new evidence exonerated them or because there were flaws in the way they were convicted. Since the 1977 reinstatement of the death penalty in Illinois, 13 men have been freed while 12 have been executed.
"This is an issue that's larger than Illinois. Illinois has had 13 cases, but most of these cases are outside of Illinois and there are problems in those places as well," Dieter said.
Panel co-chairman Frank McGarr, a retired federal judge, is not raising expectations about what will come of the commission's recommendations.
"The Legislature will have to decide whether they're going to adopt our improvements," he said.
Ryan's panel might get a cooler reception in the Illinois General Assembly than it would elsewhere in the nation. Ryan is a lame-duck governor weakened by a four-year federal corruption probe that brought indictments earlier this month against his campaign committee and two former top aides. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but decided not to seek a second term.
Some believe the General Assembly already has done enough.
Lawmakers have set up a trust fund to finance both prosecution and defense in capital cases and the Supreme Court adopted training and experience standards for lawyers and judges.
State Rep. Art Turner, sponsor of a bill that would substitute life in prison without parole for the death penalty, said neither legislative reticence nor Ryan's January departure will stand in the way of reform.
"Issues don't die or swing based upon who's in office," Turner said. "The momentum for your issue should continue. The death penalty issue, the momentum has been moving, and it's starting to pick up."