Illinois passes death penalty reform package

Sheila Burt and Sheila Burt

The Illinois House of Representatives unanimously passed a package of death penalty reforms Wednesday, but experts and Northwestern officials said the bill’s measures may not go far enough.

The legislation, which follows other recent death penalty reform measures, passed by a vote of 115-0. The bill will become effective immediately, as it passed the Senate earlier this month.

Under the bill’s provisions, the Illinois Supreme Court can overturn a death sentence “if the court finds that the death sentence is fundamentally unjust.” The bill also establishes a pilot program that attempts to create a more impartial line-up procedure and allows judges to rule out the death penalty in cases where there is only a single eyewitness account.

“I think that we really have shown the citizens in Illinois that we are serious about death penalty reform,” said Mary K. O’Brien, D-Coal City, who sponsored of the bill and represents the House’s 75th district, which includes portions of Kankakee and Will counties.

Despite these new provisions, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he will not lift the Illinois moratorium on the death penalty until the effectiveness of the reforms are studied. Former Gov. George Ryan enacted the moratorium on Jan. 31, 2000.

“You can’t just pass a whole series of bills one day and then the very next day think that you’ve now solved a pervasive problem and a broken system,” Blagojevich told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Sergio Molina, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Blagojevich has no set time limit to decide the future of the moratorium.

Blagojevich vetoed a previous version of the bill in July because a section of it allowed police officers to be suspended if accused of perjury. But Blagojevich said in a Nov. 5 statement that his concerns over officers’ rights have been addressed in a compromise that restricts who can accuse police officers of perjury.

Law officials said the bill is a step in the right direction, but it still does not address all of the problems in the criminal justice system.

Thomas Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor and co-chairman of Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, said the legislation, along with previous measures, represents “some very important and much needed reforms in the Illinois criminal justice system.”

But even so, Sullivan said many issues remain unaddressed, including the number of eligibility factors for a death penalty sentence and a statewide review commission.

“I think it’s a wonderful start,” Sullivan said, but “there’s a ways to go.”

Robert Warden, executive director for NU’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he was pleased with several of the reforms, but he worries that many of the provisions could be subverted by police or prosectors.

“This package falls something short of the Holy Grail,” Warden said, “and its effectiveness will depend in large part on the courts implementing the reforms.”

Warden said he would like the reforms to go further by prohibiting under all circumstances testimony from “snitches” who often receive reduced sentences in exchange for unreliable information.

“I defy anyone in American history to show us even one case in which a snitch testimony proved to be accurate,” Warden said.

Edwin Colfax, director of the Illinois Death Penalty Education Project at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said the new bill does not create a uniform death penalty system. Convicted individuals in rural Illinois area are five times more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted in Cook County — a disparity that needs to be addressed, he said.

“There’s no question that the bill has a lot of necessary reforms,” he said, but “we can’t kid ourselves that the system has been fixed with these reforms. It doesn’t address any problem fully.”

O’Brien said the bill that she sponsored will be reexamined. She helped develop a provision for a committee to evaluate the bill’s effectiveness.

“We wanted to make sure these reforms in fact are working,” she said. “We will have a study and look back after five years to determine whether or not these measures are working.”