Public Ready for Death Penalty Reform

Article excerpt

Gov. George Ryan of Illinois won praise locally and worldwide when he announced earlier this year that he would impose a state moratorium on executions, pending a study of why the state's death penalty system has gone so horribly wrong.

He acted after the balance had swung to judicial findings of innocence for 13 Illinois death sentenced inmates, one more than the number of people actually executed in the state since capital punishment resumed.

Illinois has garnered nearly universal support for this pause in executions. In advance of this decision were legislative proposals, judicial analysis and media exposure of a system riddled with flaws. Confronted with a string of convictions and death sentences for factually innocent defendants, the public appears ready for review, for an assurance of accuracy, before anyone else is executed. In short, the public is ready for reform.

Public support for the death penalty rests on the conditions that it is reserved for the guilty, that it is imposed only where appropriate, and that it is imposed fairly. Growing awareness that those conditions are often violated provides an opportunity for true leadership in governors' mansions across the land.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a recent survey in Missouri said the most important goal of justice should be to ensure the accused is actually guilty of the crime. Illinois' experience shows that this "most important goal" is seriously shortchanged. …