Elsewhere, questions about death penalty

Ill. has first moratorium

nine states studying issue

May 10, 2002|By David Nitkin and Dennis O'Brien | David Nitkin and Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Shortly after Illinois Gov. George Ryan took office in 1999, he was faced with the case of Anthony Porter.

Porter was scheduled to die for murder, but his lawyer earned a reprieve two days before the execution because of questions about whether his client, with an IQ of 60, understood the punishment.

Then a group of journalism students discovered that police in Milwaukee had arrested another man who had confessed to the crimes.

"No one believed Mr. Porter was innocent, not even his lawyer," said Dennis P. Culloton, a spokesman for Ryan. "Journalism students found the real killer."

Within a few months, more Illinois death row inmates were exonerated - bringing the state's total to 13, out of 25 convicted prisoners nearing execution, and a national debate had begun.

Ryan issued a death penalty moratorium in 2000, becoming the first governor to take the drastic move.

"After we had exonerated more than we executed, he just said `enough,'" Culloton said.

Joining the debate

Gov. Parris N. Glendening joined the debate yesterday, declaring that no Maryland inmates should be put to death for up to a year, pending the public and legislative review of a study to be released later this year.

Nine other states, including Virginia and Delaware, are undertaking state-funded studies of the death penalty; until yesterday only Illinois had halted executions outright. New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a bill in May 2000 that would have repealed that state's death penalty.

"There is definitely a national repositioning on the debate on the death penalty," said James S. Liebman, a Columbia University law professor who has studied cases nationwide.

"What is happening is the public and their representatives are reclaiming this issue as one over which they should exercise judgment," rather than the courts.

101 exonerated

Liebman said that 101 death row inmates have been exonerated since the death penalty was revived in the 1970s, one for every seven inmates who have been killed since then.

Last month, a federal judge in New York said he was inclined to declare the death penalty unconstitutional in a case involving two alleged drug dealers from the Bronx unless the government could explain why innocent people wind up on death row.

Glendening drew immediate praise yesterday from national leaders involved in death penalty issues.

"It's an act of tremendous courage," said Wisconsin Sen. Russell D. Feingold, who had called Glendening earlier this week to urge him to halt executions. Glendening returned the phone call yesterday morning.

"I was so pleasantly surprised, I said, `Holy smokes, governor, that's terrific,'" said Feingold, a Democrat who is the author of legislation to halt federal executions until further study. "I'm seeing great leadership out of the state of Maryland."

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