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Death-Penalty Foes Feel Time Finally on Their Side

March 11, 2002
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Death-Penalty Foes Feel Time Finally on Their Side

by The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - Darby Tillis knew he was innocent of the 1977 murder and robbery he was convicted of but had resigned himself to take execution "like a man." Then reality set in.

"You're hit by the stench of Pinesol, feces, urine, body odor, sick odor," said Tillis over the weekend. "You are in the Death House. You are treated like a contaminated piece of meat to be disposed of."

Tillis is one of 13 death-row inmates who have been exonerated since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Twelve have been executed.

Those statistics prompted Gov. George Ryan to say earlier this month that he would likely review the cases of all 159 inmates on Illinois' death row - and possibly commute some or all of the sentences to life in prison - before he leaves office in January.

After the governor's imposition of a moratorium on executions two years ago, the announcement was just the latest step in a shift of public and political sentiment on the death penalty in the state.

"This was a very courageous thing for the governor to do," said Anthony Porter, 42, who was released in 1999 after 17 years on death row on a murder conviction, largely due to the efforts of Northwestern journalism professor David Protess and his students. The group's efforts have led to the release of at least four other inmates.

Ryan has joined death-penalty opponents in labeling incompetent lawyers, testimony by jailhouse snitches and insufficient testing of evidence as serious flaws in the system leading up to many death sentences.

But as the governor sets out to review all the cases, many of them complex and with difficult histories, he will discover that they defy easy categorization.

According to a Chicago Tribune analysis of the cases, at least 14 of the 159 inmates on death row were represented at trial by attorneys who have, at some point, been disbarred or suspended.

At least 23 were convicted or condemned at trials where the prosecution's evidence included a jailhouse informant, a notoriously unreliable form of evidence.

Ryan has said he is bothered by cases in which African-American defendants were convicted or condemned by all-white juries. At least 16 death-row inmates fall into that category.

Nearly a dozen cases were investigated by Chicago police detectives accused of systematically torturing suspects to get confessions. Ryan also will confront cases where defendants were convicted during trials riddled with errors.

It is undisputed that some defendants had trials undermined by poor defense work or the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. But identifying those cases, and then trying to understand how that might have affected a trial and, perhaps, obscured a defendant's innocence, is tricky.

"The thing to remember is this - when Anthony Porter was about to be killed, no one thought that was a case that raised any questions of factual innocence," said Northwestern University law professor Lawrence Marshall. "Lo and behold, it turns out we couldn't have been more wrong."

Just 50 hours before his execution, Porter was granted a reprieve by the Illinois Supreme Court. He tested so low on an IQ test that the court couldn't be sure he could comprehend what was about to happen to him. The delay gave Protess and his team time to investigate the case and establish Porter's innocence.

Given the great difficulties in trying to extract those inmates most worthy of being spared, Ryan may well turn to a blanket commutation.

But such a sweeping commutation presents its own set of problems. Although Ryan, who is not running for re-election, would not have to worry about any political fallout, such a move still is likely to cause an outcry, said state Sen. Kirk Dillard.

It also would allow some of the state's most heinous murderers to escape the ultimate punishment.

Among the inmates on death row are serial killer Henry Brisbon, and Fedell Caffey and Jacqueline Williams, who were convicted of murdering a pregnant woman and carving the fetus out of her womb.

A sweeping commutation would include Timothy Buss, convicted of the 1995 murder of a 10-year-old he stabbed 50 times. Buss previously was convicted of killing another child.

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