State Journal-Register

Jun 13, 2002

Death penalty reform debated

DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - Recommendations to reform Illinois' death penalty system were criticized by prosecutors and victims' advocates at a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday but drew praise from those who have worked to exonerate innocent people on death row.

The reforms proposed by Gov. George Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment "are lacking in balance," said Kent Scheidegger, legal
director for the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment as a deterrent to crime.

John Kinsella, an assistant state's attorney from DuPage County, also complained that some of the proposed changes would create hurdles for police and prosecutors trying to investigate or prosecute a case.

Ryan sparked a nationwide debate over capital punishment when he imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois in January 2000 pending the commission's study. Ryan testified via video camera from Springfield on the 85 recommendations he hopes the state legislature will approve by fall.

"Until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent person is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate as long as I'm
governor," said Ryan, unable to attend the hearing in person because of Tuesday's state budget deliberations.

The Republican governor was joined by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in defending the makeup of the commission from charges that it was
dominated by death penalty opponents.

"I don't believe that the commission was biased. I believe it was honest," Durbin said.

The hearing was chaired by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who called for the federal government and the other 37 states that authorize the death penalty to follow Illinois' lead.

Maryland last month became the second death penalty state to impose a moratorium on executions.

Feingold wants Congress to impose a similar moratorium on federal executions but concedes he doesn't yet have the Senate votes.

Hearings are scheduled for next week on House and Senate bills aimed at increasing protections for death row inmates by ensuring
competent counsel and access to DNA testing.

Nationwide, more than 100 people on death row have been exonerated, and 68 percent of all death penalty appeals are reversed because of serious error, according to the Justice Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group seeking fairness in the judicial system.

Three men recently exonerated and released from death row were in the audience.

Ray Krone, 45, of Arizona was convicted of murder and served 10 years in prison before being released in April after his family pushed for DNA testing of evidence.

"I'm fortunate that DNA was saved all these years," Krone told reporters. "But it was my family, not the system, that worked."