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Illinois Death Penalty Reform: How it Happened, What it Promises

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 95 Issue: 2 Dated: Winter 2005 Pages: 381-426
Rob Warden
Date Published
46 pages
This paper traces the events that led to the Illinois General Assembly's fashioning of death penalty reform in January 2003 and discusses what it promises for the future.
This action came 3 years after Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions and 10 months after he used his clemency and pardon power to remove all inmates from the State's death row. This was Governor Ryan's response to a landmark study which found that 43 percent of Illinois death penalty cases had been reversed on direct appeal or at the postconviction stage as of 1995. Of the cases that progressed to the Federal habeas corpus stage, 40 percent were found to have been remanded for retrial or resentencing. The reform package developed by the General Assembly authorizes judges to bar death sentences in cases based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, informant, or accomplice; creates a pilot project to test a new eyewitness identification protocol; requires trial judges to hold pretrial hearings on any jailhouse informant testimony offered by prosecutors; established an administrative procedure for firing police officers who commit perjury; gives the State Supreme Court authority to set aside death sentences it deems "fundamentally unjust"; simplifies jury instructions regarding the appropriateness of the death penalty; and creates an independent, 16-member Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee to assess the impact and effectiveness of the various reforms and report annually to the General Assembly. Although Governor Blagojevich, the current Governor, is free to abandon the moratorium on executions, he has chosen to keep it in force until it is clear that the reforms work as intended, since death sentences continue to be imposed. The author of this article doubts that executions will be resumed in Illinois, because the courts will probably abolish it on proportionality grounds. 284 notes and appended summaries of wrongful convictions in post-Furman Illinois capital cases and factors in wrongful convictions in post-Furman Illinois capital cases