Commutation of Ill. killers not justice for victims' kin

January 19, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

IN 1994, Reginald Wilson, his girlfriend, Felicia Lewis, and a mutual friend of theirs cruised Chicago's streets in a Chevy Blazer until they stopped at a gas station so the friend could use the restroom.

Who knows what Wilson and Lewis had in mind for the rest of the evening? The night of Jan. 12 had given way to the early- morning hours of Jan. 13. News reports say Wilson, who had been a basketball standout at Illinois State University, was on his way home. He had just indulged his passion for hoops in a Chicago basketball league game.

So maybe Wilson, 23, and Lewis, 20, would have watched a little television, listened to some music or popped in a video. Whatever their plans, they never came to fruition.

Anthony Brown and four of his co-sociopaths were also cruising Chicago's streets, looking for a vehicle to carjack. They saw the Chevy Blazer at the gas station where Wilson and Lewis were waiting for their friend.

Brown and his gang ordered Wilson and Lewis into the back seat of the Blazer. Then Brown gave the order to drive to a parking lot in another part of town. Once on the lot, Brown raped Lewis. Both Wilson and Lewis pleaded for their lives before members of this mob shot each twice in the head.

"Brown was convicted on DNA evidence," said Michael Rushford on Thursday afternoon. "The blood of one of the victims was on his pants." Rushford is the president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif., group that has existed for 20 years and has the curious notion that crime victims matter.

Brown was sentenced to death in October 1996. Would his execution have bothered me? Nary a skosh. There should be no questions about his guilt. Death penalty opponents are quick to praise DNA evidence when it proves the innocence of a death row inmate but are strangely silent when it confirms one's guilt.

But guess who was one of the 167 death row inmates whose sentences departing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted to life without parole this month? Ryan also pardoned four inmates who he claimed were innocent and convicted on confessions tortured out of them.

We media types made danged skippy you heard about those four cases. We haven't been as diligent in telling you about Brown or DeWayne Britz. The folks at the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation have taken it on themselves to correct that discrepancy.

In a news release issued Jan. 10, Rushford informed Americans about not only Wilson and Lewis, but about Mimi Covert. On Jan. 16, 1985, Covert stopped to pick up a man she thought was a stranded motorist and gave him a lift. The man was Britz. The truck he had stolen overheated and stalled.

Britz forced Covert to drive to Springfield, Ill., where he raped, robbed and murdered her. He confessed to the crime.

Now before you go thinking of how even confessions are iffy evidence -- and of the five New York men convicted in the 1989 Central Park "wilding" incident from whom, as it transpired, police were able to elicit false confessions -- you have to know there's an important wrinkle to Britz's confession.

"He led police to the body," Rushford said. "Police didn't coach him, because they didn't know where the body was."

Hmmm. Confession. Suspect leads cops to body. It's pretty certain this guy did it, too, and should have been executed Sept. 14, 1988, per order of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Ryan wouldn't have it that way. Because some death penalty convictions were wrongly obtained, Ryan reasoned, all death penalty inmates deserve a break. Relatives of Wilson, Lewis and Covert must be pondering why Brown and Britz deserve more of a break than their loved ones ever got.

"The system is broken," Ryan moaned on a two-part Oprah Winfrey show about the pardons and commutations. He even invoked the "justice delayed is justice denied" adage. Winfrey had the common decency to invite relatives of victims to the show and repeatedly pressed Ryan about their concerns.

What someone should have asked Ryan is why isn't it considered "justice delayed and denied" when Covert's relatives had to wait more than 14 years from the day Britz should have been executed only to have Ryan give them a kick in the teeth. Why would it not be justice for Brown to receive the same fate as his victims?

Ryan's commutation has been praised as a humanitarian and courageous act. It smacks more of a blast of effluvium hurled into the faces of those relatives of murder victims whose killers Ryan knew for certain were guilty.

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