On Jan. 31, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a moratorium on state executions, despite his support of the death penalty. The moratorium in Illinois will certainly prevent the execution of innocent defendants, as the state has unreliably granted death-penalty sentences and provided defendants with often incompetent trials. It is unlikely, however, that mistakes in cases in which the death penalty is sought are unique to Illinois. Other states should seriously consider the integrity of their own use of the death penalty in sentences and establish a similar moratorium to ensure that innocent defendants are not wrongly executed.
Gov. Ryan decided to impose the moratorium because of Illinois’ high percentage of death-penalty convicts later found innocent. Ryan stated that Illinois’ “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row” was likely to result in the “ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of an innocent life.” “Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty,” Ryan stated, or “that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.” Ryan’s decision was preceded by the moratorium proposed by the Nebraska legislature and similar bills proposed in many other states.
Ryan established the moratorium because of the unreliability of death-penalty convictions in Illinois. Although only 12 people have been executed in Illinois since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977, 13 people sentenced to death have been found innocent, mostly without the state’s assistance. In several of these cases, volunteers have assisted those who were obviously innocent when the state’s appeals process would not. A professor and several students from Northwestern University in Illinois also assisted in nine cases to prevent executions of innocent people.
The death penalty has been improperly applied in Illinois because of often unreliable trials. Currently, of 260 appeals to death penalty sentences, more than half have been overturned for either a new sentencing hearing or trial. Defense attorneys have been found to be either disbarred or suspended from practice in 30 of these cases. In more than 40 of these cases, testimony that is considered unreliable was used by the prosecution to convict. Even a former prosecuting attorney of many of the overturned cases — current Chicago mayor Richard Daly — has admitted that defense attorneys were often unprepared for trial, underfinanced, understaffed and occasionally incompetent. Mistaken sentences have also resulted from prosecutors who have failed to reveal exculpatory evidence.
The use of the death penalty has been a contentious issue throughout American legal history. Regardless of its appropriateness, there should be exact, unyielding standards if it is to be used. There are likely several other states similarly unreliable in sentencing executions, which should thoroughly investigate the accuracy of their capital cases. When the death penalty is mistakenly used, more victims are created, and the original victims do not receive justice the laws offer. If such a severe sentence is to be imposed, it is imperative it is performed carefully and with a thoroughly considerate process.