The Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment
recently issued a report containing more than 80 recommendations which
when implemented will make that state's death penalty system
substantially fairer and more just. The report makes it clear that the
task of reform will be daunting. The report urges fundamental changes,
some of them expensive. But in the view of the commissioners, their
recommendations are not optional. They are necessary if Illinois is to
reform its system to minimize the risk of executing the innocent.
Some politicians complain that the state of
Illinois cannot afford to do the job right. But Gov. George Ryan
stated the issue confronting state leaders succinctly: "We're
talking about life and death. We're not talking about losing an
Ryan created the commission two years ago, after
13 Illinois death row inmates were exonerated of the crimes for which
they were sentenced. He declared a moratorium on executions while the
commission did its work. Now, said Ryan, if the state is to resume
executions, it must first find the money to fix the system.
Illinois, having invested in its study, should
begin the implementation process. The implementation of the suggested
reforms undoubtedly will be difficult. But the alternative - risk of
executing the innocent - is unacceptable.
The difficulties in reforming should not excuse
other states from implementing moratoriums on executions while they
complete the rigorous process of examining the flawed systems they
currently employ. And flawed they are. The problems identified in
Illinois are not unique to that state's system.
Too much evidence demonstrates otherwise.
Twenty-two people have been exonerated and released from Florida's
death row, seven people each from Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas, and six
each from Georgia and Louisiana. It is inevitable that there are more
cases of wrongful death sentences across this country. For example,
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Missouri may have
executed two innocent persons and that three others with strong
defenses remain on that state's death row.
The Illinois report also demonstrates the fallacy
of the approach some states have taken - examining only part of
their death penalty systems. Where states have undertaken limited
reviews, they have made little headway in implementing even modest
A state must examine its entire death penalty
system and provide the resources to do so. Such an examination
includes quality of defense services, guidelines for clemency
proceedings, review of jury instructions and much, much more. Only by
reviewing its entire system can a state understand how each flaw can
compound error to frustrate just and accurate results.
As long as government seeks to punish criminals
by death, government leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the
death penalty is imposed under the most fair and equitable system
possible. To determine what such a system demands, all states with
capital punishment should follow Illinois' excellent example and
conduct serious, in-depth investigations of their death penalty laws
and processes. To help states identify their problems, the American
Bar Association has prepared protocols that assist jurisdictions in
formulating comprehensive studies and evaluating the results. The
Illinois report provides additional valuable guidance for states'
Meanwhile, state leaders should take a step that
costs very little in actual dollars - declaring moratoriums on
executions pending their review. The executions of those already
sentenced can wait until justice is assured.
Since 1997, the American Bar Association has
called for a nationwide moratorium on executions because of
overwhelming evidence of pervasive problems in the administration of
the death penalty
The tools for change exist. It is time for states
to use them.
Robert E. Hirshon is president of the American Bar Association.