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Almost three years ago, in January 2000, soon-to-be former Illinois Gov. George Ryan made national headlines when he imposed a moratorium on executions of death row inmates after the exoneration of 13 men facing capital punishment. Profoundly disturbed by the systemic flaws in the prosecutorial system indicated by the release of the men who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die, Ryan formed the Illinois Capital Punishment Commission to study the problem. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, the state had prosecuted 275 death penalty cases, executed 12 people, and exonerated 13; the commission re-examined all 275 cases. In April of this year, the commission issued its report, validating Ryan’s grave concerns and recommending sweeping changes. Among the commission’s 85 recommendations: videotaping of police interrogations (not just confessions); reducing the number of death-qualifying factors from 20 to five (eliminating felony murder as a qualifier); and prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded (two months after the commission issued its report, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such executions unconstitutional in Atkins v. Virginia). Ultimately the commission, which included former and/or current judges, U.S. attorneys, senators, prosecutors, and public defenders, noted that even if the Illinois Legislature implements the extreme changes it recommends, there is no guarantee that innocent people will not be put to death. Ryan opted not to run for re-election due in part to a licensing scandal involving people he had appointed, but his passionate advocacy for drastic reform of the state’s capital punishment program emerged as a pivotal issue between the candidates, Republican Jim Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich. While the candidate who supported less extreme reform (Blagojevich) won, both candidates acknowledged the obvious need for systemic change and were compelled to confront and discuss the profoundly disturbing information uncovered by Ryan’s commission. Ryan’s recognition of the need for serious examination of his state’s capital punishment system and the shocking information that emerged from that undertaking also led other states to critically evaluate their programs. Last May, Maryland’s Gov. Parris Glendening acknowledged serious concerns with his state’s system and imposed a moratorium on executions at least until completion and review of a racial bias study. Ryan’s last act before departing office may well provide a headline as stunning as the horrifying revelations his investigation revealed: He is considering commuting the sentences of the 157 inmates currently on Illinois’ death row. Such a gesture would provide telling commentary on Ryan’s confidence in the system that placed them there. Beth Wilkinson, a partner in the D.C. office of Latham & Watkins, is a former federal prosecutor.

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