In mid-November Illinois lawmakers will have the opportunity to restructure the criminal justice system, to demonstrate that they understand a system that has bred wrongful convictions, false confessions, mistaken eyewitnesses and other outrages cannot be allowed to stand.
The timing is perfect. Legislators have had the chance to gauge the impact of court reforms enacted by the Illinois Supreme Court. They have had months to study the recommendations issued in April by the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment. The pressures of the political campaign will be behind them.
It could well be their last genuine opportunity. The movement to change the justice system has had many supporters, but it has largely been sustained by one person, Gov. George Ryan, who will leave office in January.
George Ryan's potential successors, Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Jim Ryan, have vowed that they will keep in place the moratorium on executions the governor imposed in January 2000. The two candidates have offered their own prescriptions for new protections in the justice system, but they don't have the same personal stake in a resolution of this issue that George Ryan has taken.
For those reasons, it is imperative that the legislature act before the end of the year. No more excuses. Lawmakers must restore confidence in a damaged system. They must establish a model for the rest of the nation to emulate.
Every new delay is an affront to justice. It keeps open the possibility that still more individuals will find themselves imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, and that new victims will be created while real criminals run free. Every postponement also prolongs the pain of murder victims' families, who regard the moratorium as a delay in the justice they seek.
On the day the commission's report was released, a reporter asked George Ryan if he thought lawmakers would find these reforms difficult to support in an election year. Ryan's face reddened in anger and his voice boomed: "We're talking about life and death, we're not talking about losing an election!"
He was right.
If it appears the legislature is prepared to act in November, we can expect criticism to rise. Some police and prosecutors are resistant to many of the changes recommended by the governor's commission.
Gripes against reforming the state's death penalty are as plentiful as they are weak. Some argue that this is a problem largely confined to Cook County, that prosecutors in the other 101 counties should not be `punished' for bad practices in the state's most populous region. They argue that advanced DNA technology will root out future wrongful convictions, so there is no need for further reforms. They argue that the reforms will be too expensive.
Those are specious contentions. Illinois' criminal justice problems extend far beyond Cook County's borders. Five of the state's 13 exonerated Death Row inmates were from counties other than Cook, both rural and suburban. The problems extend beyond Death Row, too. The experience of wrongful convictions in capital cases only raises the prospect that more innocent people have been convicted in cases that have drawn less attention because they didn't lead to the death penalty.
As for the magic of DNA, it figures in only a small fraction of all crimes. Most criminals don't leave DNA material behind, particularly in armed robberies and shootings. Even as DNA evidence becomes more widely used, there is evidence that the justice system continues to put innocent people behind bars. Corethian Bell spent 17 months in Cook County jail on charges that he stabbed his mother to death. He confessed to the crime after 50 hours of interrogation, but DNA tests later linked another man to the crime. Bell was finally released last January.
Nothing, however, argues better for the need for reform than the cases of the 13 men who once called Death Row home.
If Illinois had required that interrogations and confessions be videotaped, there likely would have been no years-long dispute about whether Rolando Cruz told investigators he had a mysterious "vision" about the murder of a little girl, implicating himself in the 1983 death of Jeanine Nicarico. That reform likely would have spared him the 11 years, 7 months and 25 days he spent incarcerated for the crime before being released in 1995.
If Illinois disallowed death sentences in cases where the conviction relied solely on the testimony of an accomplice with something to gain, Verneal Jimerson might have been spared 11 years on Death Row for the kidnapping, rape and murder of two people. Jimerson's nightmare was sealed by the testimony of a 17-year-old woman with an IQ of 64 who couldn't read, write or tell time--and who continually changed her story.
If Illinois barred hanging a conviction on the testimony of a single, unrelated eyewitness, Steven Smith might have been spared 14 years on Death Row for the murder of a man outside a Chicago bar. After all those years, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the testimony was unreliable.
If Illinois mandated that a judge screen before trial all testimony by jailhouse informants, Steve Manning might have been spared the 41/2 years he spent under a death sentence. In his case, the prosecution's star witness--a chronic liar and con man--wove a tale that Manning had confessed to him in prison. The Illinois Supreme Court cited insufficient evidence when it reversed Manning's conviction in 1998.
Over the last five days the Tribune has set out guidelines for reform, many of them ideas that were contained in the report by the governor's commission.
The commission had the benefit of great expertise. Of the commission's 14 members, 11 had prosecutorial experience. One, Thomas Needham, served as general counsel to the Chicago Police Department. The commission did some extraordinary work. In the course of the panel's two years of study, it took in testimony from dozens of law enforcement officials and evaluated exhaustive data provided by police departments.
It's time to restore Illinois' system of justice.
There will be significant costs to getting it right. An accurate, fair and reliable system of capital punishment will not come cheap. As it is, the state Supreme Court spends an enormous amount of its time hearing and ruling on death penalty appeals. Crime labs are woefully backed up with requests for DNA testing. Defense attorneys still are desperately underfunded, even with increased money granted to them by the legislature.
The costs of getting it wrong, though, are far worse. Figure in the multi-million dollar settlements paid to some of those who have been wrongfully convicted. Cook County paid $36 million to Jimerson and three other men. DuPage County paid $3.5 million to former Death Row inmates Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez.
The emotional costs are even more daunting. Innocent people have spent years wasting away in prison. Victims' families are burdened anew with the knowledge that the real perpetrator of the crime has been free for all those years.
These are the kinds of costs this state can no longer bear. With the authority to impose the death penalty comes a responsibility to get it right.
Now's the time to get it right. Get it right, or get rid of it.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times