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SACRAMENTO — The debate over a death penalty moratorium in California officially reached the Capitol on Tuesday as former Illinois Gov. George Ryan told legislators he was on a “mission” to push nationwide reform. “I would encourage this state and every state to take a second look,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with calling a moratorium for a couple of years . . . to examine the system.” Ryan appeared at an informational hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on the California Correctional System. He was invited by Chair Gloria Romero, a Democratic senator from Los Angeles. The hearing was the first time Ryan had testified to a group of legislators outside Illinois since he commuted the sentences of all prisoners on his state’s death row as he left office in January. The former governor’s actions have renewed activism and prompted calls for moratoriums across the country. California prosecutors say there’s nothing wrong with the system here, but defense attorneys disagree and point to many of the same sorts of problems found in Illinois. Recently, pro- and anti-death penalty groups further inflamed the debate by releasing competing studies debating the success of California’s capital system. Several cities and counties, mostly in the Bay Area, have also passed moratoriums on the death penalty. But those gestures have no power and do not limit the ability of district attorneys to charge capital cases. Although several people attending the hearing expected Romero to call for a study to examine California’s death penalty system, the senator said she needed to look over the information presented at the hearing before taking that step. She said she also wants to confer with Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, the powerful Democrat from San Francisco who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and also sits on the correctional committee. Both Burton and Romero are opposed to the death penalty. A Senate study would be an important victory for the anti-death penalty side. The only person with the ability to impose a moratorium is Gov. Gray Davis, and he strongly supports the ultimate punishment. But if an unbiased study found troubles with California’s system, it would be tough for Davis, or the next governor, to ignore. Although Ryan met privately with Davis on Tuesday, the California governor issued a news release reaffirming that California has “appropriate protections and procedures” in its death penalty system. Ryan supported capital punishment until a group of journalism students did a project that pointed out myriad problems in Illinois. DNA testing also proved that a few death row inmates could not have committed the crimes of which they were accused. Following the revelations, Ryan created a commission to study the capital system, which recommended several reforms that ended up getting stalled in the Illinois Legislature. Just before leaving office, he also held a series of high-profile hearings to investigate all of the death sentences, and to the chagrin of Illinois prosecutors decided to commute all of the sentences to life in prison. Ryan, a Republican, served one term as governor. He chose not to run for reelection as allegations arose of a bribery scandal involving state officials he oversaw when he was Illinois’ secretary of state. Romero said that even though she is opposed to the death penalty, she is not seeking abolition or a moratorium. “I don’t have the answers right now,” she said. Even so, prosecutors who attended the hearing were concerned about Romero’s motivation. David LaBahn, acting executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said he thought it was “bizarre” that the issue was being aired in a correctional committee, rather than in the judiciary or public safety committees. LaBahn said studying the death penalty in California was part of opponents’ long-term strategy “to slow things down.” Romero opened the hearing by discussing Gov. Davis’ plan to spend $220 million to rebuild the death row at San Quentin State Prison. She said that such an expenditure — combined with the budget crisis and the problems with capital punishment highlighted in Illinois — was enough to prompt discussion about how fairly the death penalty is administered. Although she said she did not want to get into the merits of capital punishment, that was hard for committee witnesses to avoid. Alameda County Assistant District Attorney James Anderson said the hearing was just an attempt to “keep the debate going,” even though there doesn’t appear to be any political momentum for a moratorium. Anderson, who has the distinction of sending more people — 10 — to death row than any other California prosecutor, refers to death penalty opponents as “the forces of evil” because “they don’t want to see truth and justice done.” But those death penalty opponents scored some pretty significant points in a very public forum Tuesday. Besides Gov. Ryan’s recap of Illinois’ problems, other death opponents presented statistics to bolster their position. Michael Laurence, executive director of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, said that of the death judgments from state courts that have made it to the federal level — at either U.S. District Court or the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals — since 1977, nearly 70 percent were found “constitutionally defective.” In many of those, the higher courts ruled that defendants had ineffective counsel, a flaw Laurence and others say indicates serious problems with the system. In response, Dane Gillette, the senior assistant state attorney general in charge of AG Bill Lockyer’s capital punishment program, denied there were problems with counsel. He said the Ninth Circuit was the problem.

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