Doubts about death penalty spreading

Governor of Ill. unlikely to rescind moratorium

May 21, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHICAGO - Four months after he rekindled the death-penalty debate by imposing a moratorium on executions in Illinois, Gov. George Ryan says he strongly doubts that any inmates will be put to death while he remains in office.

The governor, a Republican, has appointed a commission to study ways to solve problems with the death penalty but says he will not go ahead with executions unless the panel can give him "a 100 percent guarantee" against any mistaken convictions.

"I don't know if we'll ever go back to the death penalty as we knew it, as long as I'm governor," Ryan said in an interview Friday. The governor halted executions in the state after 13 men were sent to death row and later exonerated by new evidence.

"If this commission comes back and says we can't give you a 100 percent guarantee, if they can't tell me the system will be flawless, I've got an obligation to say that I can't go ahead."

The moratorium by Ryan, a longtime proponent of capital punishment, has helped to renew the national debate over the death penalty. In imposing the moratorium, Ryan described the capital-punishment system as "so fraught with error" and said it "has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life."

A national survey in February found support for the death penalty at 66 percent, the lowest in 19 years. In 12 states this year, legislation has been introduced to halt executions. The Legislature in New Hampshire voted Thursday to abolish capital punishment, the first state to pass such a bill since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume nearly 24 years ago. The governor of New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, vetoed the measure Friday.

The death-penalty commission appointed by Ryan will examine the cases that led to wrongful convictions in Illinois. The panel is being led by Frank McGarr, a former federal judge; Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. attorney; and Paul Simon, a former Democratic senator. William H. Webster, the former director of the CIA and the FBI, will be a special adviser to the commission.

The commission includes law-enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense lawyers, a businessman and the novelist Scott Turow, among others.

Simon, a death-penalty opponent, said it was difficult to imagine that the panel could deliver an ironclad guarantee to Ryan that, even with certain improvements in the legal system, no innocent person would be convicted of a capital crime.

"It is possible we'll come to the conclusion that there's no way to salvage the death penalty," Simon said. But he said he was speaking for himself, not the commission, and added that a majority of the 14 members of the panel support capital punishment.

The governor did not give the panel a timetable for its recommendations. But Simon said the three chairmen agreed to finish the work and deliver findings within about six months.

Simon said the commission will focus largely on the legal representation given to people on death row, who are often indigent.

The death penalty, after years of being largely ignored in American politics, has lately spawned increasing debate. There are 3,600 people on death rows nationwide, and 87 death-row inmates have been freed since 1973.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is expected to be the Republican nominee for president, has said that he strongly believes no innocent person has been executed in his state, which leads the nation in executions.

Despite polls showing that a majority of Americans favor the death penalty, Ryan said he received much more praise than criticism for imposing a moratorium. "A lot of people are telling me it was the right thing to do," he said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said notable concerns about executions have been expressed lately by conservatives, including Pat Robertson, a television evangelist; Oliver L. North, a former Senate candidate; and George Will, a columnist. Tom Osborne, the Republican nominee in the Nebraska Senate race, has taken a strong stance against the death penalty.

"A lot has happened since Governor Ryan's moratorium," Dieter said. "It's hard to imagine that what happened in Illinois, especially the wrongful convictions, hasn't had some effect on what people are thinking."

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