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Illinois Governor Announces Death Penalty Moratorium

Citing a "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row", Illinois governor George Ryan announced a halt to state executions. The January 31 announcement marked the first such moratorium in the U.S.

The Nebraska Legislature passed a moratorium on executions in 1999, citing concerns about racial disparity in sentencing, but the governor vetoed it.

Since capital punishment was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 12 death row prisoners have been executed while 13 have been exonerated after their cases were reopened.

Governor Ryan cited a series of articles published by The Chicago Tribune that examined nearly 300 cases in Illinois courts in which the death sentence had been imposed. Of some 260 cases that have been appealed, fully half have been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing.

The Tribune found that in more than 30 cases, death row prisoners were represented by lawyers who were disbarred or suspended from practice. In more than 40 cases, testimony from (notoriously unreliable) jailhouse informants was used to convict or condemn the defendant. In numerous other cases, recanted testimony by prosecution witnesses, improper rulings by the judge, or misconduct by the prosecutors resulted in convictions that had to be reversed.

"I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life," Gov. Ryan told The New York Times.

Governor Ryan's announcement met with little criticism in Illinois, a measure of how publicity-driven outrage over bungled convictions has altered the death penalty debate in Illinois.

"The political climate has changed here," said Professor Lawrence, who is director of Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions. "There has been an astonishing recognition that innocent people are being sent to death row. So now people are re-examining cases in Illinois that would not be re-examined in other states."

Since 1973, 85 people have been found innocent and released from death row. Though 13 of those were condemned in Illinois, Florida leads the nation in this dubious category with 18 such cases.

Source: New York Times

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