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CNN Today

Illinois Governor Announces Moratorium on Capital Punishment

Aired January 31, 2000 - 2:09 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: All executions in Illinois have been stopped. The governor today announced a moratorium on capital punishment because of concern that the state may be putting innocent people to death.

Here's CNN's Patty Davis in Chicago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anthony Porter walked out of an Illinois prison last February, one of 13 Illinois death row inmates exonerated and freed since 1977, more than the 12 that had been put to death. Monday, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a death penalty proponent, put a temporary halt on all executions in his state.

GOV. GEORGE RYAN (R), ILLINOIS: I now favor a moratorium because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.

DAVIS: Ryan's actions make Illinois the first state to suspend executions and grants the 158 men and women who now sit on Illinois's death row a temporary reprieve while the state reviews its procedures.

In recent years, students and professors have done almost as much to clear death row inmates as Illinois law enforcement. These Northwestern University students took on the case of four men known as the Ford Heights Four convicted after a brutal gang rape and double murder. Two spent 18 years on death row.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Feel great.

DAVIS: In 1996, DNA evidence cleared them and they were released.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This type of ordeal is something that never leaves you.

DAVIS: Rolando Cruz and Alexandro Hernandez were convicted in a 1983 murder and sentenced to death. Their convictions were reversed on appeal.

PROF. RICHARD KLING, KENT COLLEGE OF LAW: What I would hope is that there's a thorough evaluation of the whole criminal justice system.

DAVIS: Professor Richard Kling's class at Chicago Kent College of Law says another death row inmate, Edgar Hope, is innocent of the 1982 murder for which he is sentenced to die.

KATHLEEN MORIARTY, LAW STUDENT: For the four of us, Edgar's life means more than anything we're dealing with.

DAVIS: The repeated high-profile cases have focused the national spotlight on Illinois's death row procedures and prompted calls for the moratorium. There is no margin for error when it comes to putting a person to death.

DAVIS: Now Governor Ryan is waiting for some answers from a commission he'll appoint to study why so many people are wrongly convicted and sentenced to die in Illinois.

Patty Davis, CNN, Chicago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATERS: Joining us from Washington with his perspective on this issue is CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack. This is a first, Roger. Nebraska came close. The governor there vetoed their moratorium on the death penalty.

This one didn't get a consensus in the legislature in Illinois, didn't even get to the Senate, but now the governor says he's making this decision because -- and this statement is quite stunning -- the state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.

What's gone wrong here?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Lou, this is an example, I suppose, of a whole lot of things. It's an example of death penalty, people who are against the death penalty. More important it is showing the advance of technology, the better use of evidence, the use of DNA to find out that people just simply did not do crimes that they may have been convicted of.

So what the governor realizes is that there have been 13 people in Illinois alone that have been exonerated. That doesn't mean a new trial, Lou. That doesn't mean a procedural mistake. That means they just were not -- they simply were not guilty and have been let go by the use of new evidence.

So this is the problem obviously with the death penalty. There's no room for error. You make a mistake, you can't go back and correct it.

WATERS: In addition to the things you just mentioned, the governor mentioned in an earlier statement that he wanted to know why disbarred attorneys were taking part in defense case. Had you heard about that before? COSSACK: Well, there have been some shameful appeals that have been -- appeal issues that have been raised: that lawyers had been sleeping through the cases, that disbarred attorneys had gotten appointed, had somehow slipped through the cracks. But those are the kinds of things that should -- that could be rooted out. That kind of mistake, that can be found out. Obviously, if you have an incompetent attorney, you're entitled to a new trial. That procedure can be worked on and modernized.

The problems I think that are bigger are the problems of finding new evidence five, 10 years down the road, or the use of new evidence, like DNA, that finds out these people simply aren't guilty. That's the real problem here.

WATERS: One of the high-profile cases is the Porter case, which Patty Davis mentioned in her piece. Now, that -- that case was overturned because a college journalism class proved that Porter was innocent. Now, that would indicate something tremendously wrong with the Illinois system of capital punishment.

COSSACK: And I think, Lou, that you cannot just point the finger at Illinois. I think this is something that we're going to see more and more of. As you alluded to, Nebraska tried to do it and was unable to do it. In this state, the governor did it on his own.

But are going to see more and more -- what this class has done at Northwestern is went out and found witnesses who recanted their statements, who recanted their testimony, and then was able to prove independently that Porter wasn't the one that should have been convicted.

So you're going to see more and more of this. I think this is just in some ways the beginning of a whole review of the death penalty procedure in the United States through the states.

WATERS: Right. We've got that police corruption scandal story erupting out in Los Angeles in addition to that.

COSSACK: Yes.

WATERS: We thank you, Roger Cossack, our legal analyst in Washington.

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