Putting a stop for now to the death penalty; Illinois: Possibility of executing innocent prisoners alarms state's Republican governor.


IN A STEP toward restoring sanity to public policy, Illinois' governor has suspended all executions because of his "grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row."

Indeed, 13 death row inmates in Illinois have been cleared of murder charges in the past 22 years -- more than the number of condemned prisoners the state has put to death.

Just last week, another death-row inmate's case raised new questions about wrongful convictions: A key witness now says he was coerced by detectives, whose commander was later fired for directing the torture of suspects until they gave false confessions.

A Chicago Tribune article examined nearly 300 death penalty cases and discovered nearly half of them were reversed on appeal; 33 defendants were represented by attorneys later disbarred or suspended, and 46 cases were based on the testimony of often unreliable jailhouse informants.

Gov. George H. Ryan said he no longer could support a system that "has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of an innocent life." Other states should show similar caution.

We have long opposed capital punishment. It does not deter crime. It is impossible to administer in a racially non-discriminatory manner. It is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to the values of our society. And it could result in the state finding out too late it has killed without justification.

Look at Maryland's last execution: Tyrone X. Gilliam was put to death 14 months ago for a cold-blooded murder. But who actually fired the fatal shot never was clear; statements were retracted; the murderers were high on PCP. Gilliam went to his death proclaiming he wasn't the trigger man. What if we discover some day he was telling the truth?

Juries can be wrong. Prosecutors can be wrong. We lose our chance to correct such mistakes when we impose the death penalty.

Listen to one person, whose family experienced not one but two murders:

"It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless murder-- . But even as a child, one thing was clear to me: I didn't want the killer, in turn, to be killed. -- I saw nothing that could be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of another. And I knew, far too vividly, the anguish that would spread through another family -- another set of parents, children, brothers, and sisters thrown into grief."

The words come from Maryland's lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Her boss, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, should reflect on her position, and on the courageous stance of Illinois' governor. Then Mr. Glendening should impose his own moratorium on government executions. For society's sanity, it's the right thing to do.

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