30 years of the death penalty
By Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, Northwestern University School of Law
January 12, 2003
The modern debate over the death penalty began 30 years ago, when the Supreme Court voided all state death penalty laws, saying they were racially discriminatory and haphazard. Gov. George Ryan's pardon and clemency decisions evolved many years later, but reflect the three decades of history collected here by Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions.
June 29, 1972
Saying they are haphazard and racially discriminatory, the U.S. Supreme Court voids all state death penalty laws.
Nov. 8: Gov. Dan Walker signs a new Illinois death penalty law, ostensibly correcting the problems identified by the Supreme Court and creating three-judge panels for sentencing.
Sept. 29: The Illinois Supreme Court voids the new death penalty law, saying the legislature lacked constitutional authority to create the three-judge sentencing panels.
June 27: The revised Illinois death penalty law goes into effect, supported by Rep. George H. Ryan (R-Kankakee). It calls for a bifurcated sentencing procedure involving only one trial judge.
Nov. 21: The Illinois Supreme Court upholds, 4-3, the new law in Carey vs. Cousins, but dissenters argue the law will be applied arbitrarily and capriciously.
March 13: John Wayne Gacy is sentenced to death after his conviction for the murders of 33 young men and boys in Cook County.
Nov. 4: Death penalty opponent Seymour Simon is elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, replacing Justice Thomas E. Kluczynski, a member of the majority in Carey vs. Cousins.
Nov. 30:The justices in the former minority flip as the state Supreme Court in People v. Lewis reaffirms the constitutionality of the 1977 law, with only Justice Simon dissenting.
Jan. 21: Darby Tillis and Perry Cobb become the first two Illinois Death Row prisoners exonerated following reinstatement of the death penalty.
Aug. 14: The forensic DNA age dawns when the emerging technology establishes that Gary Dotson did not commit the rape of which he had been convicted a decade earlier.
Aug. 17: Protesters accuse Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and several subordinates of torturing prisoners, leading to false confessions in murder cases.
Sept. 12: After abandoning his appeals, Charles Walker becomes the first person to be executed in Illinois since 1962.
Feb.24: A secret Chicago police internal report surfaces cataloging more than 50 instances of "methodical" and "systematic" torture by Jon Burge and his subordinates.
June 28: In Maryland, former Marine Kirk Bloodsworth becomes the first American under sentence of death to be exonerated by DNA.
May 10: John Wayne Gacy dies by lethal injection in the state's first involuntary execution, 17 years after Illinois reinstated the death penalty.
Sept. 8: Joseph Burrows becomes the state's third Death Row prisoner to win exoneration.
March 22: James Free and Hernando Williams die an hour apart in the state's first double execution since 1952.
May 17: Girvies Davis of St. Clair County is executed despite evidence developed by Northwestern University journalism students indicating he may have been innocent.
Sept. 20: Charles Albanese is executed for the murders of three relatives, crimes he denies committing.
Nov. 3: Rolando Cruz becomes the state's fourth exonerated Death Row prisoner when a sheriff 's officer admits Cruz did not make a statement authorities used to convict him.
Dec. 8: Alejandro Hernandez, co-defendant of Cruz, becomes the fifth Death Row prisoner to be exonerated.
Jan. 16: Guinevere Garcia is 14 hours away from becoming the first woman executed in 57 years Illinois when, over her objection, Gov. Jim Edgar commutes her sentence.
June 24: Verneal Jimerson, one two men sentenced to die in the Ford Heights Four case, becomes the state's sixth exonerated Death Row prisoner when DNA establishes his innocence.
July 2: Dennis Williams, the other man sentenced to die in the Ford Heights Four case, becomes the state's seventh exonerated Death Row prisoner.
Oct. 4: No. 8, Gary Gauger, is exonerated when an Appellate Court holds that police lacked probable cause to arrest him for murdering his parents.
Dec. 4: The General Assembly approves a measure to prevent clemency efforts on behalf of Death Row prisoners who don't want clemency.
Dec. 12: Carl Lawson becomes the state's ninth exonerated prisoner when forensic testing discredits the state theory of the crime for which he had been sentenced to die.
Feb. 3: The American Bar Association calls for a national moratorium on executions until policies are implemented to minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed."
June 10: A federal grand jury in Milwaukee indicts two motorcycle gang members for acts of racketeering, including the crime for which Gary Gauger had been sentenced to die in Illinois.
Sept. 4: Murder charges are dropped against two prepubescent Chicago boys after semen is found on the clothes of an 11-year-old victim. Police claimed that the boys had admitted committing the crime.
Sept. 13-15: A national conference on wrongful convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law draws international attention to death penalty mistakes.
Jan. 10-14: The Chicago Tribune publishes a five-part series documenting hundreds of examples of prosecutorial misconduct in Cook County.
Feb. 5: Anthony Porter, who had come within 48 hours of execution, becomes the state's 10th exonerated Death Row prisoner, thanks in part to Northwestern journalism students.
Feb. 19: No. 11, Steven Smith, is exonerated when the Illinois Supreme Court reverses his conviction and bars a retrial.
March 16: The Cook County Board settles civil claims arising from the Ford Heights Four case for $36 million, the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.
March 17: Andrew Kokoraleis dies by lethal injection after Gov. George Ryan denies clemency on the eve of the execution.
March 31: Lawyers for the Ford Heights Four ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible criminal charges against officials involved the case.
April 6: The County Board approves State's Atty. Dick Devine's request to hire Gino L. DiVito, a former top assistant state's attorney, to investigate the Ford Heights Four case.
April 27: Presiding Judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court denies the Ford Heights Four attorneys' request for a special prosecutor.
May 17: Ronald Jones becomes the state's 12th exonerated Death Row prisoner when DNA exonerates him of the rape and murder for which he had been sentenced death.
Nov. 14-19: The Tribune publishes a series exposing how dubious evidence, racial discrimination and incompetent lawyering affected scores of Illinois capital cases.
Jan. 18: Steve Manning, a former Chicago cop sentenced to death on the word of a jailhouse informant, becomes the state's 13th exonerated Death Row prisoner.
Jan. 24: The Tribune reports that Gino DiVito "has yet to producea report of his findings, and many of the most prominent players in the case say DiVito has not interviewed them."
Jan. 30: Ryan declares a moratorium on executions, saying it will be in effect until he can be morally certain that no innocent person will face execution in Illinois.
Feb. 16: In a letter published in the Tribune, Gino DiVito says he working diligently on the Ford Heights Four investigation.
March 7: The Tribune publishes a poll showing that support for the death penalty among Illinois voters has declined to 58 percent from 63 percent a year earlier. In 1994, support stood at 76 percent.
March 9: Ryan announces a Commission on Capital Punishment to study flaws in the administration of the Illinois death penalty and recommend reform.
July 29-30: At a conference in Virginia, Illinois lawyers involved in death penalty appeals explore the possibility of seeking clemency for all Death Row prisoners.
Sept. 26: The DuPage County Board approves a $3.5 million settlement of civil claims against officials involved in the wrongful convictions of Cruz and Hernandez.
Oct. 12: A federal judge in Milwaukee sentences Randall E. "Madman" Miller to life in prison for a racketeering scheme that included the murder of Gary Gauger's parents.
Jan. 1: The Capital Litigation Trust Fund is established, providing funding for defense attorneys to pay investigative costs and hire independent forensic experts in capital cases.
Jan. 19: In a plea-bargain arrangement that will soon result in his release, former Death Row prisoner Darrell Cannon agrees to abandon a claim that he was tortured by Burge's officers.
March 9: James W. "Preacher" Schneider is sentenced to 45 years in prison after pleading guilty in Milwaukee to federal racketeering charges, including the Gauger murders.
May 2: The Center on Wrongful Convictions releases a report documenting how mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony has helped send 46 innocent Americans to Death Row.
June 29: Lawyers handling capital appeals for the Office of the State Appellate Defender agree to launch an effort seeking clemency for all Illinois Death Row prisoners.
July 27: Groups interested in pursuing blanket clemency quietly convene at the Chicago office of OSAD's Capital Litigation Division for an organizational session.
Sept. 27: The Tribune discloses that State's Atty. Devine has offered deals under which additional Death Row prisoners could be released if they abandon torture allegations.
Nov. 20: The first in a series of closed-door strategy sessions on blanket clemency is held at the Capital Litigation Division office in Chicago.
Dec. 16-19: The Tribune publishes a series exposing coerced, fabricated and otherwise tainted confessions in 247 Cook County murder cases from 1991 to 2001.
Jan. 4: Corethian Bell, from whom Chicago police had coerced a confession that he killed his mother, is released from Cook County Jail after DNA establishes his innocence.
Feb. 8: Gov. Ryan amendatorially vetoes an anti-terrorism bill to strike a death penalty provision and add reform measures recommended by his Commission on Capital Punishment.
March 1: The Illinois Supreme Court mandates standards for defense lawyers in capital cases and pointedly reminds prosecutors that their duty is to seek justice, not win convictions.
March 2: Ryan, after an appearance at the University of Oregon School of Law, tells reporters he will consider commuting all Illinois death sentences.
March 7: The Center on Wrongful Convictions reports that 26 innocent people have been convicted of murder in Illinois as a result of false confessions since the 1950s.
April 15: The Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment issues its report, calling for a revamp of the criminal justice system.
April 24: A special prosecutor is appointed to investigate whether Burge and others used torture to obtain confessions from scores of men, 10 of whom remain under death sentence.
April 25: The Center on Wrongful Convictions releases a report showing that false jailhouse-snitch testimony sent 38 innocent Americans to Death Row.
June 24: The Daily Southtown reports Gino DiVito promises to report soon on his investigation into the Ford Heights case.
Sept. 9: The Chicago Sun-Times editorializes against blanket clemency, saying it "ignores the reality that each case must stand on its own facts."
Oct. 13: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishes a poll showing Illinois voters almost evenly divided on the issue of blanket clemency, with 45.5 percent in favor and 49.7 percent opposed.
Oct. 14-28: Compelling testimony of victims' family members at clemency hearings for 142 Death Row prisoners draws massive media attention, overshadowing arguments for clemency.
Oct. 22: Ryan says he "has pretty much ruled out" granting clemency to everyone on Death Row but adds, "That doesn't mean I won't do it."
Oct. 25: The Peoria Journal Star approvingly notes that Ryan appears to have ruled out blanket clemency.
Oct. 26: The Bloomington Pantagraph says commutations should be "done on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket measure opposition to Illinois' death penalty procedures."
Oct. 29: The Tribune says the clemency hearings exposed blanket clemency "as something that can be embraced only by those who flat-out oppose the death penalty."
Nov. 3: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports a poll in the wake of the hearings: 55.1 percent of Illinois voters oppose blanket clemency and 39.9 percent favor it.
Nov. 14: Ryan announces the pardon, based on innocence, of Paula Gray, whose coerced statement was instrumental in the convictions of the Ford Heights Four.
Nov. 18: A letter signed by more than 650 Illinois lawyers urges
Ryan to commute the sentences all Death Row prisoners to life without parole.
Nov. 19: The Illinois House of Representatives overrides Ryan's amendatory veto of the anti-terrorism bill.
Nov. 21: The New York Times says Ryan "should do the right thing, and commute all the death] sentences to life in prison."
Dec. 1: Twenty-one retired judges, including former Criminal Division Presiding Judge Richard J. Fitzgerald, urge commutation of all Illinois death sentences.
Dec. 6: Ryan holds the first of two meetings with murder-victim survivors who urge him not commute sentences.
Dec. 15: Three dozen prisoners exonerated from the nation's Death Rows call for blanket clemency at a national gathering the Northwestern law school.
Dec. 16: The former Death Row prisoners march from Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet the governor's office in Chicago to present a letter calling for blanket clemency.
Dec. 18: Prosecutors free four Chicago men wrongfully convicted of a 1997 torture murder based on false testimony by a police informant and a coerced confession.
Dec. 19: Ryan, in pardoning exonerated Death Row prisoners Cruz and Gauger, says he is perplexed that victims' survivors sometimes feel entitled to have someone executed.
Dec. 30: Some 400 law professors advise Ryan that it would be proper to use executive clemency address systemic flaws in the capital punishment system.
Dec. 31: Rev. Jesse Jackson, after visiting with Death Row prisoners at the Pontiac Correctional Center, calls for blanket clemency.
Jan. 3: Ryan meets with families of men and women on Death Row, who plead for the prisoners' lives.
Jan. 7: Former Death Row prisoners Cobb, Gauger and Porter call for blanket clemency and pardons for prisoners tortured Burge.
Jan. 10: Ryan pardons four men on Death Row in speech at DePaul University College of Law.
Jan. 11, 2003
Gov. Ryan announces clemency decision at Northwestern University School of Law.
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