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U.S.: Illinois Commission Highlights Death Penalty's Inherent Flaws

Human Rights Watch welcomed the unanimous conclusion of the bi-partisan commission, appointed by Governor George H. Ryan to examine the administration of the death penalty in Illinois, that no system of criminal justice can guarantee absolutely that innocent persons will not be sentenced to death.

The commission recommended eighty-five reforms to the state's criminal justice system that would improve the fairness and integrity of the process by which capital punishment is imposed. While acknowledging the value of those reforms, Human Rights Watch agrees with a majority of the commission that the death penalty should be abolished entirely "because of moral concerns" and because "no system can or will be constructed which sufficiently guarantees that the death penalty will be applied without arbitrariness or error."

"The cornerstone of human rights is respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of the human person," said Jamie Fellner, U.S. Program Director for Human Rights Watch. "These principles cannot be squared with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality, and a punishment inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error."

Human Rights Watch calls on Governor Ryan to press for the abolition of the death penalty or, at the very least, to continue the moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois until such time as the commission's recommendations have been fully implemented. Human Rights Watch also urges Governor Ryan to commute the death sentences of all those currently on death row in light of the likelihood that their cases were prejudiced by the numerous flaws in the death penalty system identified by the commission.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the governors of states with the death penalty to follow the courageous lead of Governor Ryan and to institute moratoriums on capital punishment, pending comprehensive review of its administration and pending its complete abolition. The many flaws identified by the Illinois commission in the administration of capital punishment exist to a greater or lesser degree across the nation. The commission's report is but the latest, albeit one of the most comprehensive, analysis of how unfairness, discrimination and error influence decisions to impose the ultimate punishment.

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