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Empyting Death Row

Empyting Death RowWhen Illinois’ Governor commuted 156 death sentences last week, he thrust the national debate over the death penalty into new territory, says a nationally-renowned Tufts expert. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.17.03] In a dramatic decision last week, outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan emptied the state's death row just days before leaving office. The move - which resulted in both public praise and outcry - thrust the debate over capital punishment into new territory, says a nationally-renowned Tufts expert.

"What is going to happen is a national dialogue on this." Hugo Bedau - a professor emeritus at Tufts and a death-penalty opponent - told the Christian Science Monitor. "We're going to be forced to talk about the facts of the death penalty."

Those facts are at the very core of the national debate.

Citing the recently released findings of a state commission he convened in 2000, which recommended 85 reforms to Illinois' capital punishment system, Ryan questioned the fairness of the punishment.

"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," the governor - a former death penalty supporter - said in his statement. "... If the system was making so many errors in determining whether someone was guilty in the first place, how fairly and accurately was it determining which guilty defendants deserved to live and which deserved to die?"

His view appears to be gaining ground around the country.

"A majority still supports the death penalty, but the tide appears to be turning slowly and the American Bar Association has called for a national moratorium," reported the Washington Post. "In 2001, only half as many death sentences were applied as in 1998."

But few expected a move as dramatic as commuting 163 sentences at once.

"[The decision was] the most remarkable political act against the death penalty by any governor in our history," Bedau told the Post.

While governors have broad commuting powers, Bedau said Ryan's use of them was quite unusual.

"It has almost ceased being an option," Bedau told the newspaper.


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