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Examining matters of life and death
I have been critical of Gov. George Ryan's administration on many fronts but when it comes to death-penalty reform, he deserves credit. The moratorium was the right decision and so was the decision to carefully and professionally study the death-penalty system in Illinois.
The report of the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment is a thoughtful attempt to put into place many effective reforms to make capital punishment in Illinois as accurate and fair as possible.
All of us in leadership positions--the governor, the attorney general, law enforcement officials and members of the General Assembly--should act quickly on the proposals we can agree on and just as quickly begin debate on those where there are differences.
We must seize this unprecedented opportunity to make the changes that will ensure the public's confidence inour ultimate form of punishment.
My initial read of the recommendations is that I can support the vast majority of them. I have publicly stated my support for many of the principles that form the foundation for the proposals.
I agree with the emphasis on expanded use of DNA testing. It has been my position as DuPage County state's attorney and Illinois attorney general to support more use of DNA testing, which represents one of the most effective ways to sort out truth in criminal cases. We need to fully support funding for a comprehensive DNA database. I agree that we must devote resources to clear up the backlog of DNA tests and make sure Illinois has the best labs in the country. I agree with the emphasis on specialized training for practitioners of capital cases-- judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. I agree that we need to adequately fund all aspects of the capital process to ensure fairness.
I agree that we need to require that in-custody interrogations and confessions be videotaped, where practicable--as long as we provide police agencies with sufficient funding and training.
I have long supported narrowing the scope of cases subject to capital punishment. The goal is to execute only the "worst of the worst." Over the years, the number of cases that are death eligible has grown as the legislature has added qualifying factors to the statutes. All murders are horrendous, but we have to recognize that the U.S. Supreme Court requires us to limit cases subject to the death sentence on some rational standard.
Determining where to draw the line is probably the most difficult and controversial part of the report. I support the commission's plan to reduce substantially the number of aggravating factors. The commission chose five qualifying factors that I agree with: Murder of a police officer or firefighter, murder of someone at a correctional facility, multiple murders, murder involving torture and murder of a witness, judge or juror.
I would favor retaining death eligibility for any person who murders a child and would add a provision for someone who commits murder in the act of terrorism. I favor a trimmed down version of the existing "murder during the course of a felony" factor to include only the most violent felonies.
I support legislation that would prevent the state from executing any person found to be mentally retarded.
I also support the recommendation that would allow a trial judge to reduce a jury judgment from death to natural life in prison.
My first step in tackling these recommendations is to bring law enforcement officials and legislative leaders together to pursue reform. As the state's top law enforcement official, I will convene a meeting to find consensus. I am convinced that we share the common goal of making our criminal justice system fair and accurate.
If I am fortunate enough to be elected governor, I would continue to support capital punishment but would not lift the moratorium until the system is made as fair and accurate as possible.
I reject the notion that we should not tackle this problem until after the election. Those of us who were elected to do a job should go about doing it as quickly as possible. We aren't being paid by the taxpayers to defer tough assignments.
Our criminal-justice system is created and operated by honorable and well-meaning people who try their best to bring the right people to justice. We must try just as hard to seek out and support any measure that makes the system fairer and more just.