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Death Penalty on Trial

Ever since Illinois Governor George Ryan halted executions in January 2000, the state has been center stage in the national debate over the death penalty. Now Ryan has moved into a dramatic phase of this saga. He's holding clemency hearings for all death-row inmates who want them – 142. Eighteen did not want clemency.

The hearings, replaying grisly murders, have set loose a flood of emotion. But that can't be allowed to obscure the basic purpose: determining whether convictions and subsequent death sentences resulted from fair trials or tainted ones.

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Questionable practices during trials – ranging from incompetent counsel to overreliance on jailhouse informants – were a major reason the governor ordered the suspension and subsequent review of capital punishment. In more than a dozen cases since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, condemned inmates were later proven innocent.

The hearings also have brought out factors related to the fairness of legal proceedings. Some inmates say their confessions were forced by police torture. A number of inmates' lawyers are emphasizing the low IQs of their clients. The commission appointed by the governor to assess capital punishment recommended that mentally retarded persons not be executed.

In many cases, there's no question the convicts did what they were accused of. The question is whether their trials were so flawed that their sentences should be commuted.

Ryan, who leaves office after this year, has the ultimate say on clemency. He can rule case by case according to his clemency board's findings. Or he may be so disaffected with the death-penalty system he chooses to reduce every sentence to life imprisonment.

In any event, the process in Illinois illustrates the multitude of human failings that can work their way into capital trials, raising the terrible prospect of executing the innocent. That prospect, together with deep moral concerns about state-sanctioned killing, underscores the need to put the death penalty permanently back on the shelf of history.