End death penalty for mentally impaired says Illinois report

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The Independent US

A widely expected official report on the death penalty in Illinois yesterday delivered a torrent of recommendations on how to fix the deep flaws in the system but concluded that nothing, ultimately, could guarantee that an innocent person would not be executed.

A widely expected official report on the death penalty in Illinois yesterday delivered a torrent of recommendations on how to fix the deep flaws in the system but concluded that nothing, ultimately, could guarantee that an innocent person would not be executed.

A state commission headed by a former federal judge spent more than two years looking into a prosecutorial death machine that has put America in a select category of countries, with Iran and Saudi Arabia, that execute prisoners by the dozen, even juvenile offenders and the mentally impaired.

Two years ago, the exoneration of 13 Death Row prisoners in Illinois shocked the Governor, George Ryan, into declaring a moratorium on executions while the commission investigated. Recently, the Governor said he was considering a mass commutation of almost 160 death sentences.

Such moves have put Illinois in the forefront of a growing movement in America to look at the fairness of the death penalty, which is meted out overwhelmingly to poor, non-white prisoners who rely on the shoddy representation of court-appointed public defenders.

A majority on the Illinois commission favoured scrapping capital punishment altogether. But that looks a distant prospect given the pervasive tough-on-crime attitude of almost all elected lawmakers, and the report stopped short of formally calling for it. The members did make clear that no system could be flawless.

"The commission was unanimous in the belief that no system, given human nature and frailties, could be devised or constructed that would work perfectly and guarantee absolutely that no innocent person is again sentenced to death."

Among the report's key recommendations were the establishment of an independent state panel to review all capital convictions, and a requirement that the judge, as well as the jury, be in favour of the death penalty.

The commission gave 85 recommendations designed to reduce the number of death sentences drastically. It suggested murder committed in the course of another crime, such as armed robbery, should no longer be a capital offence. Cases where conviction rested on a single witness, or the testimony of prison informers, should also be ineligible. Executing the mentally retarded should be stopped and juries should be required to consider other mitigating factors such as childhood abuse.

One hundred people have been freed from Death Row across America since the reintroduction of capital punishment in the Seventies because they were ultimately found to be innocent or their convictions were flawed. In two years, the number of executions across the country has fallen sharply.

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