Naked City

Illinois Life, Texas Death

It was a busy weekend for outgoing Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois. On Jan. 10 he pardoned four death-row inmates, then on Jan. 11 Ryan commuted the death sentences of the remaining 157 inmates. "The facts that I have seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases raised questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death-penalty system as a whole," Ryan said. "Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error. ..." Ryan's pardons and commutations are the result of an exhaustive review of the state's death-penalty system begun in 2000 when the governor instituted a moratorium on executions. Before the moratorium, Illinois had executed 12 inmates but -- thanks largely to the volunteer investigative efforts of Northwestern University students -- exonerated 13 capital convicts since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Death penalty opponents were quick to herald Ryan's announcements as a bold and progressive move. Gov. Ryan "recognized and acted upon a simple principle: Inequitable administration of justice is no justice at all," American Bar Association President Alfred Carlton said in a press release. "[T]he inequities in determining guilt and in dispensing capital sentences are real, and the risk of taking innocent lives is becoming more apparent as the rate of exonerations for those on death row accelerates."

Hoping, perhaps, for a similar enlightenment in Texas, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, last week introduced a number of bills that, taken together, would reinvent Texas' system of capital punishment. Among Dutton's filings are a bill that would abolish the death penalty (HB 343); one that would put a moratorium on death sentences while a newly created Texas Capital Punishment Commission reviews the state's system for "any inequities" (HB 357 -- Dutton filed a similar bill last session); and one that would provide for life in prison without parole (HB 366 -- also a perennial favorite). Additionally, Dutton has filed HB 380, which would create a "death penalty bar" and prevent prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in capital cases where a first trial resulted in a hung jury or where the state's case is based on the testimony of a single witness.

Dutton has also filed HB 370, which would mandate that the Criminal Justice Policy Council analyze each capital case brought by the state since Dec. 15, 1973, to determine if any of the cases were influenced by "race, gender, or ethnicity of the defendant or the victim of the offense," or by the attitudes of prosecutors and the general public in a given county. The council would be charged with supplying a report to the governor by Jan. 15, 2005, the start of the next legislative session.

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