Peoria Journal Star

November 6, 2003

House passes death penalty reforms

By DORI MEINERT
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a broad-ranging bill including death penalty reforms that U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood has championed for more than three years.

The bill, which passed by a 357-67 vote, would authorize $1 billion aimed at providing greater access to DNA testing for death row inmates and to help clear a backlog of rape evidence cases.

It would authorize $500 million over five years to improve the legal representation in death penalty cases and $200 million in grants over five years to train law enforcement, correctional, prison, court and medical personnel on the use of DNA evidence.

"I am a proponent of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime, and this bill provides the materials necessary to repair our flawed system," LaHood said during a House floor debate. "I believe that those of us who support the death penalty have a responsibility to ensure it is applied fairly."

LaHood's support for the bill he introduced along with Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., gave it added credibility.

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, also a Republican, appeared on Capitol Hill to testify in support of the original measure first introduced in 2000. Ryan prompted a national debate on death penalty reforms when he imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois three years ago and commuted the death sentences of Illinois' death row inmates before he left office in January.

The original provisions of the "Innocence Protection Act" backed by LaHood and Delahunt and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., imposed penalties on states that didn't improve the quality of their legal counsel for defendants facing the death penalty. But the final version, a compromise reached to gain bipartisan support, offers financial incentives to states that meet certain conditions.

The Illinois Legislature is considering more far-reaching reforms.

The bill also would authorize $25 million over five years to defray the costs to states of providing DNA testing to state prison inmates.

In addition, it includes a White House proposal to authorize $755 million over five years to clear the massive backlog of more than 300,000 untested DNA samples in rape evidence kits.

Calling it a "real personal victory," LaHood said it was the most significant piece of legislation that he's had a hand in.