By Ken Armstrong and
An Illinois Supreme Court ruling on Friday pushed the number of death-penalty cases in Illinois that have been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing to 130 -- exactly half the total of those capital cases that have completed at least one round of appeals, according to a Tribune analysis.
"It's an amazing figure," Marshall Hartman, a top supervisor in the Illinois State Appellate Defender's Office, said of the 50 percent reversal rate.
The number, Hartman said, reflects two things -- appeals courts are performing their job by carefully reviewing capital cases, and too many mistakes are being made during trials in which the death penalty is sought.
"It really sends a signal that every component of the court system has to do a better job," Hartman said.
The Friday ruling upheld the conviction but vacated the death sentence of Hector Nieves for the 1992 murder of Louis Vargas, a homeless man whose body was found behind a building on Chicago's North Side. By a 4-3 vote the court ordered a new sentencing hearing, saying Nieves' eligibility for the death penalty had not been properly established.
In another ruling Friday, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the validity of the state's Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, clearing the way for prosecutors to continue locking up sex offenders even after they have served their sentences.
The decision came as little surprise to the authors of the law, who patterned it after a Kansas law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997.
Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who helped write the bill along with state Rep. Tom Dart (D-Chicago), said he is relieved to have the matter settled in Illinois.
"I think it's clearly saving lives," Ryan said. "There are fewer victims, especially women and children, as a result of this law."
The decision comes two years after the state legislature passed the commitment act in an attempt to protect victims from repeat sex offenders. To date, the law has been used to keep 20 sex offenders behind bars after their sentences expired.
Under the law, the state can continue to incarcerate a sex offender even after he has completed his imposed criminal sentence if a court finds that he is a "sexually violent person." Under the definition of the act, a convicted sex offender falls into that category if prosecutors can prove he has a mental disorder making him likely to engage in future acts of sexual violence.
In the Nieves case, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Cook County Circuit Judge Themis Karnezis erred by holding Nieves eligible for the death penalty based upon a finding that he had been convicted of murdering two or more people. Karnezis improperly counted a prior manslaughter conviction of Nieves in New York as murder, the court majority ruled.
Even with Friday's ruling, Nieves remains under a death sentence in Illinois for a different murder conviction that prosecutors obtained against him after the Vargas trial.
Illinois courts have imposed a death sentence in nearly 300 cases since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1977. At least one round of appeals has been completed in 260 of those cases, and according to a Tribune analysis, 130 of those cases have now been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing.
In 76 of the reversed cases, the defendant received a new sentencing hearing. In 54 others, a new trial was awarded. A mix of errors accounts for those reversals, including improper rulings by trial judges, misconduct by prosecutors and inept work by defendants' trial attorneys.
Charles Schiedel, a high-ranking supervisor in the State Appellate Defender's Office, said Illinois' reversal rate reflects how complex death penalty trials, and particularly sentencings, can be for lawyers. That was especially true in earlier cases, Schiedel said, when the law was new and many attorneys focused most of their energy on the trial's guilt phase rather than the sentencing.
"I think a lot of very fine attorneys still are unprepared for the complexities of a capital sentencing hearing," he said.
The Appellate Defender's Office represents most Death Row inmates in their appeals.
James Reddy, chief of the Cook County Public Defender's appeals division, said identifying one problem in capital cases is difficult. But the high rate of reversals definitely reflects something is wrong.
"You could say it's the quality of the trial personnel, or it's the fine-tooth-comb review of the appellate personnel. But the prosecution commits errors and the judges commit errors, and so you get new trials," Reddy said.
Dan Curry, a spokesman for Ryan, said, "The attorney general is troubled by statistics like these, and he thinks it's a reason why he and others should continue to seek to improve the fairness and accuracy of the death-penalty system in Illinois."
The state's system of capital punishment has come under increasing criticism, with both the Illinois Supreme Court and Illinois General Assembly creating committees to study possible reforms. Since 1977, 13 Death Row inmates in Illinois have been exonerated and 12 executed.
Renee Goldfarb, chief of the criminal appeals division for the Cook County state's attorney's office, said she believes the reversal rate in capital cases was higher in the 1980s than the 1990s. But throughout, she said, the state's highest court has reviewed death-penalty cases scrupulously.
"I feel like when we've won cases, every single issue has been closely scrutinized by them," Goldfarb said. "And the same thing goes when we have lost cases."
Staff writer Steve Mills contributed to this story.