Ryan admitted that the state has a "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row." Since the death penalty was brought back to Illinois, 13 death row inmates have been exonerated, while 12 have been executed.
The moratorium comes in the wake of a multipart series in the Chicago Tribune exposing some of the most blatant abuses carried out by prosecutors, cops, and the courts in capital cases. The articles described police torture to obtain confessions, the use of so-called jailhouse informants, and incompetent legal representation for the accused. In addition, they pointed to numerous cases of recanted testimony, improper rulings by judges, the exclusion of Blacks from some juries, and misconduct by prosecutors. Of the 260 cases that have been appealed, half have been awarded a new trial or new sentencing hearing.
Illinois is far from unique in its large number of overturned convictions. Some 38 states have the death penalty. In Florida, 18 death row cases have been reversed. Nationally, since 1973, 85 people on death row have been either retried and acquitted, or had the charges against them dropped.
Ryan projected forming a committee to study the flaws in the state's capital punishment system. The composition of the committee has not been announced, and so far there is no timetable or deadline for the committee's work.
"The machinery of capital punishment in our state is broken and it cannot be fixed," David Protess is quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun Times. Protess, a professor at Northwestern University, worked with students in investigating death-row cases. Their research led to the exoneration of several condemned inmates, including Anthony Porter, who came within two days of being executed.
The extent of the blow that has been dealt to the use of capital punishment is registered in the fact that Ryan's announcement of the moratorium met with little opposition among the state's politicians and prosecutors, including the Senate leadership which blocked a moratorium proposal in 1999.
Last year the Illinois Supreme Court launched the Special Committee on Capital Cases, a panel of 17 judges charged with recommending reforms for the application of the death penalty. The committee has suggested that police interrogations be videotaped and that lawyers on both sides of capital punishment cases be certified.
Ryan continues to support the death penalty, but stated, "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." Supporters of the death penalty in state government are preparing to marshal arguments to make the case for such "moral certainty."
State Senator Kirk Dillard told the Chicago Tribune, "I don't know how any of us could oppose the governor wanting to make sure that the death-penalty system, the most important cornerstone of Illinois criminal law, is working properly."
There are more than 150 people currently on death row in Illinois.
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