Across the US, New Doubts Surface on Death Penalty Release of Innocent Man from Illinois's Death Row Heightens Nationaldebate

Article excerpt

In the realm of the death penalty, 1999 has so far been a remarkable year.

In numerous states, the ultimate punishment is under fresh attack - on moral, legal, and even diplomatic grounds.

It's giving new hope to opponents of executions. They see the attacks as signs of the self-destruction of a flawed practice. Supporters counter that these are simply new opportunities to fine-tune a sound policy. Either way, the events are extraordinary. *The case of Anthony Porter - who was set free from Illinois's death row on Feb. 4 after another man confessed to the crime - prompted Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a death-penalty advocate, to support a temporary ban on executions. Gov. George Ryan, also a death-penalty supporter, didn't go as far as Mr. Daley but says the state must be more cautious. *Last month in Nebraska, the state Supreme Court stayed the execution of a native American man who argued that the death penalty is unfairly targeted at minorities. If the court ultimately rules for him, it would be the first time ever this argument has carried the day. * Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis last month - and his successful plea on behalf of a Missouri death-row inmate - has galvanized religious groups press their case on moral grounds * Germany is the latest in a growing number of nations that have made a full-court diplomatic press to block execution of their nationals in the US. Two Germans are set to be gassed in Arizona in the next two weeks. "The picture around the country is a reexamination of the death penalty in light of weaknesses and defects in its imposition," says Sam Jordan, director of Amnesty International's death-penalty abolition project. He notes that more state legislatures are debating bills to limit the death penalty. In 1996, for instance, three states saw bills to limit executions of the mentally ill. In 1997, that jumped to nine. This year California, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Texas will take up bills limiting execution of juveniles. Often, however, bills such as these do not pass - in large part because some three- fourths of Americans support the death penalty. Indeed, last week Ohio executed its first person in 36 years. And in Alaska and Massachusetts momentum is building to instate the death penalty. Illinoisans' doubts Here in Illinois, however, more people are doubting the system's ability to put the right people on death row. In the 12 years since Illinois reinstated the death penalty, it has overturned 11 death- row convictions - including two this month. That's the same number of people as it has executed. Take Mr. Porter. Last year, two days before he was to be executed for a double murder, his lawyer won a stay, arguing that Porter is mentally handicapped. Then a team of private investigators discovered holes in the case and persuaded another man to admit to the crime. On Feb. 4, Porter joined more than 75 other people who've been freed from death rows in the US. …