ACLU Applauds Commutation of Death Sentences by Illinois Governor -- Says Question Is 'Now What?'

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
January 11, 2003 12:00 am

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Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON–The American Civil Liberties Union today applauds the historic decision by Illinois Governor George Ryan to commute the sentences of all death row prisoners in the state to life in prison. Illinois has exonerated more people than it has executed, a testament to how broken the system is. Faced with these stark facts and a legislature that has been slow to enact reforms, Governor Ryan’s actions are appropriate.

A comprehensive bipartisan study of Illinois’ death penalty released last year by a special commission identified 85 needed reforms; however the legislature has yet to implement any of them. Without these crucial reforms, we cannot rely on the fairness of the death sentences that have been imposed.

Governor Ryan today made a very difficult decision, but the question now is where do we go from here. The process that resulted in the 13 previous exonerations and the need for the action taken by the Governor is still in place. The legislature must enact the reforms outlined by the special state commission as soon as possible.

It is important to remember that Illinois’ record is better than most. The state has fewer than average death penalty convictions reversed on appeal and accounts for only a small number of the more than 100 people sentenced to death who have been exonerated.

The lesson here is that states that have the death penalty can no longer allow these problems to persist. We need a moratorium in every death penalty state to determine where flaws in the system exist and what the best ways to address these flaws are. The state legislatures must then act decisively to enact reforms.

The ACLU believes that it is time to abandon capital punishment. Those who insist that the death penalty remain must shoulder the burden of ensuring that it is applied fairly. Governor Ryan’s actions today are one man’s courageous attempt to strike that balance. We urge elected officials in death penalty states around the country to meet the challenge.

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