Ill. lawmakers send sweeping death penalty reform to governor

Friday, May 30, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The Illinois Legislature gave final approval Thursday to sweeping safeguards designed to prevent errors in death penalty cases and restore credibility to Illinois' criminal justice system.

Many of the reforms were recommended by a commission established in 2000 by then-Gov. George Ryan, who suspended all executions in Illinois and cleared out death row by granting clemency to all 167 condemned men before he left office in January.

The Senate approved the bill 56-3, making it easier for murder suspects to defend themselves and giving courts extraordinary powers to set aside death sentences. The House previously passed the measure.

"This is a revolutionary change that will be a model for other states that have the death penalty," said Sen. John Cullerton, the bill's sponsor.

Aides to Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he has not decided whether to sign the bill. Blagojevich has said that he would be satisfied only with comprehensive reforms, including the audio- or videotaping of police interrogations to protect against coercion or torture.

Blagojevich has not lifted his predecessor's moratorium on executions.

The new legislation prohibits executing the mentally retarded, gives defendants more access to police evidence, lets judges file dissents to jury verdicts and gives the Supreme Court new power to set aside sentences it considers unjust.

It also gives the accused greater access to DNA tests that might exonerate them and sets up a program to study the best way to conduct police lineups.

Illinois' criminal justice system has rocked by the release of 13 death row inmates who had been wrongly convicted.

Ryan, a Republican, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2000 and formed a commission to study flaws in the state's system. He eventually gave blanket clemency to Illinois' death row inmates, saying he feared innocent people remained there.

Republican Sen. Ed Petka voted against Thursday's bill, saying he feared it was a first step toward the abolition of the death penalty.

"If the message that is going to be sent is that this is only the opening volley in terms of making capital punishment literally impossible in this state, I want no part of it," Petka said.

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