Shameful death penalty mistakes
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2002
More than two years ago Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty and established a diverse commission to study its application. It was a humane response to the incontrovertible evidence that the state's system of imposing capital punishment was seriously broken. In a little more than a decade, 13 men had been released from death row after their innocence was established. One, Anthony Porter, came within 48 hours of being executed.
The commission was made up of 14 members with varying views of the efficacy and desirability of the death penalty, including highly respected prosecutors and defense attorneys, former FBI director William Webster and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon. On Monday , only days after the 100th death row prisoner nationwide was released after being found innocent, the commission returned with a report worthy of the seriousness of the subject matter.
Its 85 specific recommendations were the result of extraordinary work and thought. Members painstakingly analyzed what happened in those 13 cases of wrongful convictions, and they more generally reviewed the hundreds of cases in which the death penalty was applied since its re-authorization in the state in 1977. The commission looked at death penalty laws and procedures in other states and invited the opinions of experts in fields such as police practices and eye-witness testimony.
The results were recommended changes in every aspect of the system. The commission suggested videotaping law enforcement interrogations and confessions, creating a panel to review prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty, limiting the use of the penalty when the only evidence is testimony by a jail-house snitch or single eye-witness and reducing the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty, among others.
Even in the rather formal writing of an administrative report, it was clear that commissioners were stunned by what they found. Commenting on the cases of the 13 men exonerated, the report said. "All 13 cases were characterized by relatively little solid evidence connecting the charged defendants to the crimes. In some cases, the evidence was so minimal that there was some question not only as to why the prosecutor sought the death penalty, but why the prosecution was even pursued."
In Florida, too, innocent people have been placed on death row by police and prosecutors more interested in convictions than in justice.
We are sentencing people to death under a system known for its errors and inaccuracies. And Florida's system doesn't provide the procedural protections found in Illinois. In Florida, a jury recommendation for death doesn't have to be unanimous, as it does in Illinois. Moreover, if a jury recommends a life sentence in Florida, a judge can override it and impose death, as has happened 166 times.
No one has yet calculated the cost of adding the protections recommended by the commission, but how do you put a price tag on changes that could save an innocent person from execution? Yet even if every change were implemented, the commission admits there would be no guarantee that an innocent person wouldn't be put to death: "The Commission was unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could ever be devised or constructed that would work perfectly."
Gov. Jeb Bush has effectively put Florida's executions on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a case that could put the constitutionality of our death penalty at risk. No public outcry has resulted. In polls, it is apparent people are feeling far less comfortable with the ultimate punishment. It would be a good time to abolish capital punishment entirely.
If that doesn't happen, and we are under no illusions it will, Bush and the Legislature have a moral duty to put in place many of the Illinois commission's recommendations. The same mistakes occuring in Illinois are happening here, and in every state with a death penalty. The national shame is that they have been tolerated this long.
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