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Attorneys were among the dozens of people who turned out Wednesday in Chicago’s Thompson Center for a public hearing held by the Illinois governor’s commission to investigate how to improve the state’s capital punishment system. Despite repeated reminders by Chairman Frank J. McGarr that the commission held the hearing to take input on improving the system, many speakers offered no solutions, and others veered off onto tangential issues, such as police brutality against current Death Row inmates. “It turned into an anti-death penalty rally,” McGarr said afterwards. “I suppose that’s inevitable, given the feelings on the subject. But I did learn of the intensity of the anti-death penalty people.” Only one woman, whose niece had been murdered, stood Wednesday to voice support for the death penalty. The commission was formed in March, several weeks after Gov. George H. Ryan proclaimed a moratorium on executions in the state. Both the moratorium and commission were the result of an increased number of innocent men being sent to Death Row and later exonerated. Since 1977 there have been 13 inmates who had spent some time on Death Row who were later found by state courts to have been wrongly convicted. The hearing had to be cut off after three hours, even though all the people who registered to speak had not had a chance to do so. A second hearing for those speakers will be scheduled for a later time, McGarr said. A half-dozen attorneys spoke out against the death penalty at the hearing, with some supporting abolishing the practice. Charles Hoffman, an attorney who handles death penalty cases for the state Appellate Defender’s Chicago office, told the commission that the capital system is arbitrary and has the randomness of a lottery. Seriousness of a crime and a defendant’s criminal background do not seem to be factors in determining who gets sent to death row, he said. “The death penalty process does not consistently select the worst of the worst,” Hoffman said. “In our prisons there are multiple murderers with extensive backgrounds who were spared death, while others, with single murders and light backgrounds, are condemned to die.” In trying to keep within the three-minute limit set for speakers, criminal defense attorney Jed Stone said he tried to come up with a simple haiku to convey his thoughts on the issue. Instead, he told the members not to make the mistake of thinking they are banzai gardeners shaping a beautiful tree out of the existing capital system. “The death penalty is ugly,” Stone said. “And inevitably death and caprice follow it.” Richard Cunningham, an attorney who currently represents nine Death Row inmates, encouraged the commission members to talk with experts from the 12 states that don’t have a death penalty and the seven states that have one but haven’t used it. As for the system in Illinois, he said he didn’t think it was possible to fix it. “I’m here to tell you after 22 years of representing Death Row inmates that we have a Rube Goldberg contraption here,” Cunningham said. “To patch up a Rube Goldberg contraption is a waste of time and not good for the citizens of Illinois.” Other speakers at the hearing included religious leaders, representatives of the medical community who oppose doctors being involved with executions, and relatives of current Death Row inmates. Along with McGarr, a former Chief U.S. District judge, the commission includes former U.S. Senator Paul Simon; former U.S. Attorney Thomas Sullivan; Cook County, Ill., Public Defender Rita Fry; Lake County, Ill., State’s Attorney Michael Waller; appellate attorney and best-selling novelist Scott Turow; and Chicago Police Department General Counsel Tom Needham.

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