Shutting Down Death Row: Illinois' Death-Penalty Reforms May Presage a Fairer Criminal-Justice System

Article excerpt

CHANGE IN THE CRIMINAL-JUSTICE SYSTEM IS A rare thing. Change in death-penalty policy is even more rare. Yet Illinois undertook a comprehensive reassessment of its death-penalty system recently, passing reforms that will have far reaching impacts on how murder trials are handled in the state--and that could serve as a model for reform in the rest of the country.

Following the review, 11 men were released from death row, and the furor over the death penalty only escalated after the 1999 release of death-row inmate Anthony Porter. Porter had been convicted of a double murder, believed to be a holdup gone bad, in a Chicago park in 1982. A mere 50 hours before Porter's execution, his lawyers made a last ditch attempt to save him by asserting new questions about his mental competence. His execution was stayed, and in the intervening months, journalism students working in cooperation with a private detective located another man who confessed to the murder. Porter was released.

The case, and the flood of media attention that accompanied it, was enough to raise doubts about the death-penalty system even among death-penalty supporters, including George Ryan, then the Republican governor of Illinois. In early 2000, Ryan took the bold step of declaring a moratorium on executions in the state until a panel of experts, the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment, could make recommendations about how the system might be improved. In 2002, after two years of intensive study, the blue-ribbon commission released a report making 85 recommendations for improving the state's capital-punishment system. Late last year, the Illinois Legislature adopted many of the recommended reforms, and current Governor Rod Blagojevich has pledged to continue the moratorium until the reforms' effectiveness can be assessed.

While both prosecution and defense supported many of the commission's recommendations, there were two that proved controversial. The first required videotaping of police interrogations; the second involved changes in lineup procedures to make eyewitness identifications more reliable. Both recommendations were initially opposed by law enforcement, and it took determined advocacy by legislators before they were included in last year's reforms. Now that they are law, they may produce far-reaching effects on the investigation of homicides in the state.

BECAUSE WE OFTEN BELIEVE THAT OUR EYES DON'T deceive us, we tend to think that eyewitness accounts of a crime are the very best evidence of what actually occurred. Certainly juries often find it persuasive. Unfortunately, as extensive investigation by psychologists has shown, eyewitness evidence may not be especially reliable. The Illinois commission therefore recommended broad changes in the procedures for police lineups.

In a lineup, an eyewitness to or victim of a serious crime views a group of people or photos at the police station. The crime suspect is among the group, and the witness is asked whether he or she can identify anyone in the lineup. Generally speaking, the law requires that the other people in the lineup bear some resemblance to the suspect's description so that the suspect won't stand out. If the witness or victim identifies one of the group, a report is made of the identification.

Research shows, however, that witnesses often choose the person in the lineup who looks most like the person who committed the crime. In other words, they make a relative judgment. This process may produce a correct identification if the actual suspect is present. But if he or she is not, many people will simply select the person who most resembles him or her. This selection of the wrong person, what social scientists call a "false positive," can lead to the prosecution of an innocent person.

In an effort to eradicate false positives, Iowa psychologist Gary Wells and others have developed an alternative identification procedure called a "sequential lineup. …