State Journal-Register

March 8, 2001


Page 9

Support grows for death-penalty reforms


WASHINGTON - Supporters of death penalty reforms, including Rep. Ray LaHood, have reworked legislation aimed at increasing protections for death-row inmates in an attempt to gain additional backing in Congress.

Their efforts have attracted the support of 14 senators and 120 House members. But it still isn't certain that the measure will see final passage.

"An issue like this takes a long, long time to pass .. . so we're making progress," the Peoria Republican said at a press conference to mark the re-introduction of companion bills in the House and Senate.

The bills are aimed at addressing some of the same problems that caused Illinois Gov. George Ryan a year ago to impose a moratorium on executions in the state.

Illinois has freed 13 death-row inmates since 1977, more than were executed.

The Republican governor testified before a House panel last June in support of the proposal to encourage states to provide qualified, experienced lawyers to defendants facing the death penalty and to give them greater access to DNA testing that could exonerate them.

However, some Republicans contended the proposed legislation would usurp states' rights and encourage defendants to prolong meritless appeals.

The new proposal would restrict the circumstances under which a defendant could seek DNA testing to cases where the results could be "material" to proving their innocence.

It also would reduce the pot of federal law enforcement money that could be withheld from a state that fails to ensure qualified counsel, congressional aides said.

LaHood said he will urge House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, to support the reform effort started by Ryan.

"From a practical point of view, there are a lot of other things the leaders in the House and Senate are pushing," said LaHood. "We just have to get their attention."