Fixing criminal justice

December 31, 2001

Since 1999, several Tribune special investigations and other reports have methodically documented problems in America's system of criminal justice. They also have shown in haunting detail that the process by which prosecutors seek and win murder convictions, sometimes accompanied by death sentences, too often is built upon unacceptably cracked foundations.

Each time reporters Ken Armstrong, Steve Mills and Maurice Possley turned over another rock in the system, they ended up finding additional problems, each one as profound as the last. Together, their series of articles help explain why in Illinois 13 Death Row defendants have been found to have erroneous convictions, one more than the number of murderers executed since capital punishment was reinstated here in 1977.

The reporters' work raised so many questions of innocence and fairness that no one--least of all Illinois' governor, George Ryan--could ignore them.

Fortunately, Ryan decided early in his administration that beyond acknowledging the problems, he would be the one to champion the cause of reform. Until that point was reached, he promised, no executions would take place on his watch. It was the right thing to do, and the only thing to do.

Now Ryan's watch is almost over--he leaves office in little more than a year--but the work remaining is far from it.

One Tribune investigation, published last year, examined executions across the United States and found dozens of cases where prosecutors had built--and won--cases by using questionable evidence that subsequently was proven wrong or eyewitness testimony that later was recanted.

Other Tribune reports found improper decisions by inexperienced judges. Innocence proven by DNA testing. Prosecutors knowingly using perjured testimony. Inept and even disbarred defense attorneys. Convictions dependent on the notoriously unreliable testimony of jailhouse informants.

Earlier this month the Tribune looked into the problem of innocent people confessing falsely to crimes they did not commit, helped along by police using improper tactics and coercion.

Another report found that nearly 7 percent of inmates on Illinois' Death Row had scored low enough on IQ tests to be considered mentally retarded or borderline mentally retarded.

Various high-level committees have been formed since 1999 to look into these fissures in the criminal justice system. An Illinois Supreme Court committee recommended that judges receive more frequent training about handling complex death penalty cases, and that ethical rules for prosecutors include a new caution that their job is about seeking justice, not just winning convictions.

Some of the important recommendations to come from this committee and from other criminal justice initiatives have been put into effect.

Resources to defense attorneys and prosecutors were increased to help them mount more thorough cases. Minimum standards were set for both public defenders and privately retained lawyers who handle capital cases. Judges who hear death penalty cases now are required to complete periodic training. Other law enforcement officials have bolstered their own internal systems of checks and balances before pursuing death penalty cases.

These measures represent progress.

But not enough.

Before there is to be assurance that our system issues punishments that are fair and correct, many more reforms need to be enacted. But some of these very measures were either ignored or rejected over the past two years by the state's General Assembly. Among them:

- A bill to sharply curb the use of jailhouse informant testimony by having a judge first determine whether it is reliable enough to present at trial. The measure passed the House but not the Senate.

- A bill allowing defense attorneys to depose key witnesses before trial in order to better prepare their cases.

- Legislation sharpening penalties for prosecutors who knowingly withhold evidence critical to the defense.

- An attempt to outlaw executions of those who are mentally retarded.

- Legislation that would require police to videotape all interrogations of suspects in murder and rape cases who are in custody.

These and other reforms need to be adopted before Ryan leaves office. Last year, the governor appointed a special committee to examine capital punishment in Illinois. That committee's recommended reforms are sure to carry plenty of weight.

But the committee's report is long overdue and time is running out. Ryan is a lame duck with diminishing political clout. It's unclear whether Ryan's successor will make reform of the criminal justice system a centerpiece of the next administration. One hopes he or she will, because plenty of important changes remain to be made.

Only after those reforms are in place should the debate turn to this question:

Has the criminal justice system been sufficiently fixed that Illinois can lift Ryan's moratorium on executions with the assurance that no innocent person will be put to death?

So far, the answer is easy: No. Before there is to be assurance that our system issues punishments that are fair and correct, many more reforms need to be enacted.


How the System Works
Death Penalty Issues
Truth in Justice