A nightmare reviewed — Staff Editorial

Illinois Gov. George Ryan showed uncommon political courage when he issued a moratorium on the death penalty in his state because of its horrendous record of wrongfully imposing capital punishment.

Since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois, 12 people have been executed, while 13 others have been exonerated. The faults lie among a myriad of sources within the state’s criminal justice system. Ryan has appointed a commission to review the system.

In capital cases, the poor quality of defense counsel is often a factor. A Chicago Tribune study found that lawyers who had at one point either been disbarred or suspended represented 33 of Illinois’ death-row inmates. In other cases police, prosecutors and testimony from unreliable witnesses were at fault for wrongful convictions.

Illinois’ criminal justice system came under the national spotlight recently when journalism students at Northwestern University near Chicago saved a mistakenly sentences man from the death penalty.

Ideally, absolute certainty of guilt should be required when issuing the death penalty. It is debatable whether a perfect level of certainty is possible, but Ryan has at least shown willingness to improve the system. Nationwide, the tide seems to be turning in favor of reviewing a system that too often treats capital punishment with staggering ineptness.

Other states have followed Ryan’s lead – placing common-sense justice over often indiscriminate tough on crime fervor. Since Ryan’s decision to review the death penalty in Illinois, moratorium legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington state. In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening proposed a study on whether the death penalty is unfairly imposed against blacks.

The ultimate state sanction – the death penalty – must only be undertaken with the highest level of discretion or not be imposed at all.

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