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An audience of just two dozen people turned out Wednesday for the second public hearing held by the Governor’s Commission on the Death Penalty, which is charged with reforming Illinois’ much-criticized capital punishment system. Unlike last month’s public hearing by the commission, in which time ran out before all the registered speakers were allowed to give their views, Wednesday’s hearing lasted all of an hour. It featured only 14 audience members speaking. Nonetheless, those participants were best described as passionate about their expressed beliefs. A common theme to many of the comments was an abolition of the death penalty, although Commission Chairman Judge Frank J. McGarr told them that recommending a dismantling of the state’s current capital punishment system was not something the 14-member body was charged with and was a move that only the General Assembly could make possible. Still, pursuing abolition of the death penalty in Illinois is, indeed, an option open to Gov. George H. Ryan, should the commission determine the state’s capital system is beyond repair, McGarr said after the hearing. “If the outcome is the system is so bad it can’t be fixed, it would be obvious to see what the governor’s reaction would be,” said McGarr, a retired federal jurist who is currently of counsel with Chicago’s Foley & Lardner. “But it’s not our place to tell the legislature what to do.” The commission was formed in March, several weeks after the governor 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 Illinois’ 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 Illinois state courts to have been wrongly convicted. Despite McGarr saying that all the comments at the first meeting on abolition were of no help to the commission, many of those speaking on Wednesday continued in that vein. “The death penalty is not a viable option in an imperfect legal system,” said Bill Purcell, the director of the Office of Peace and Justice with the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. Shaena Fazal, a recent graduate of Chicago-Kent College of Law, told the commission members that the criminal justice focuses too much on punishment and not enough on preventing recidivism of former prisoners. “We need to prevent murders in the first place, not to kill the killers,” Fazal said. Certainly, not all the comments were about abolition of the death penalty. Marshall Hartman Jr., a deputy appellate public defender, told the commission of his concerns about no federal funding being available for defense of indigent clients. The Capital Resource Center used to provide defense work for indigent clients until Congress cut its share of funding in 1996 and it closed, said Hartman, of the appellate defender’s capital litigation division. That results in a discontinuity of lawyers representing capital case clients because a lawyer handling the appeal at the state level doesn’t follow the case when federal habeas corpus appeals are filed, he said. “I recommend you ask Congress for federal funding to support the continuation of capital defense work,” Hartman said. Aviva Futorian, a lawyer in private practice who has represented three Death Row prisoners, said the commission should recommend abolition, unless it can address such issues as arbitrariness of applying death sentences, the disproportionate number of minorities on Death Row, and police and prosecutorial misconduct and misfocus. “By ‘misfocus,’ I mean an emphasis on winning, convicting people who they think are guilty rather than really who is guilty,” Futorian said.

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