In 1893 John Peter Altgeld, the reform Democratic Governor of Illinois, made a decision that ended his career: to pardon three anarchosyndicalists convicted on spurious grounds in the famous Haymarket bombing of 1886. Four of their comrades had already been hanged. “Much of the evidence given at the trial was a pure fabrication,” Altgeld found. “No greater damage could possibly threaten our institutions than to have the courts of justice run wild or give way to popular clamor.”
Today, “pure fabrication” and “courts run wild” are routine descriptions of Illinois murder trials. That is the conclusion reached by Altgeld’s current successor, Governor George Ryan. Ryan does not exactly have Altgeld’s probity profile: He is mired in a spectacular bribery scandal involving the state’s issuing of driver’s licenses and his campaign fund. But in the Altgeld tradition, Ryan refuses to avert his eyes from what he calls “a shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row,” and on February 1 he imposed a moratorium on his state’s executions, the first like it in the nation’s history. “I cannot support a system, which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life,” he said.
Since 1977 death-row exonerations in Illinois have outnumbered executions. The immediate spur for Ryan’s moratorium was a meticulous investigative series in the Chicago Tribune in November. Combing through the state’s 285 post-1977 capital-punishment trials, the Tribune found a motley menagerie of disbarred defense attorneys, lying prosecutors, pseudoscientific evidence, corrupt informants and all-white juries.
There is no reason to think Illinois is unique . The record for death-row exonerations is held by Florida (eighteen inmates freed since 1977), but Governor Jeb Bush shows no more inclination to suspend executions than does his brother in Texas, who has presided over more than 100 killings. George W. plans to carve another notch on his belt with an execution before the end of February.
Governor Ryan’s gesture has vindicated the national Moratorium Now campaign initiated by the Quixote Center, a social justice agency based in Maryland (www.quixote.org) and supported by more than 700 groups nationwide. On February 1 Senator Russ Feingold asked President Clinton to consider a moratorium on the federal level (and received a noncommittal reply from White House spokesman Joe Lockhart), and Attorney General Janet Reno recently ordered the Justice Department to review federal capital cases for evidence of racial bias (three-quarters of federal death-row inmates are African-American or Latino). Senator Patrick Leahy has just introduced an Innocence Protection Act to give convicted offenders access to DNA testing and to require that states maintain an effective legal defense system for capital defendants. On February 10 the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution asking for a moratorium in Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-largest death row in the nation; legislatures in Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, Washington and Oklahoma are all considering moratorium resolutions.
Illinois could, after a few token hearings and reports, decide to resume killing, and neither a moratorium nor freeing the falsely condemned is enough: How the system treats the most guilty is the ultimate point. But any slowdown of the execution express train-last year more people were executed in the United States than in any year since 1951-gives the public a chance to reconsider the horrifying capital-trial apparatus, particularly if the press in other death-penalty states emulates the Tribune. A moratorium provides a meeting ground between abolitionists and the conscience of the broader public, which perhaps can still be shocked by Illinois or by the ongoing LAPD scandal, in which more than forty convictions, including murder cases, have been exposed as frame- ups.
It was the deeply embedded inequity of the capital punishment system-the combined impact of racism and poverty and corruption and politics-that persuaded Justice Harry Blackmun, who had voted to reinstate executions in 1976, to turn his back on capital punishment at the end of his career. Neither Governor Ryan nor the public has yet gone as far as Blackmun, who finally declared his independence from “the machinery of death.” But recent polls show the first downturn in support for the death penalty in decades. Illinois, where the call for a suspension of executions was launched after a 1998 conference of exonerated death-row inmates, demonstrates that a death-penalty moratorium is an attainable victory. Governor Ryan’s unsparing language suggests that skepticism about capital punishment in a vastly unequal society is, measurably if not yet inexorably, gaining ground.