Guest Column: Death Row petitions untimely for review

Guest Column: Death Row petitions untimely for review

By Richard A. Devine

In recent days, a large number of prisoners on Illinois’ Death Row have filed petitions for clemency with the governor. They no doubt believe that this governor is inclined to look favorably on their applications. While it would be unfair and unwise to speculate on the governor’s mindset, one thing is clear: given the large number of petitions and the few months left of this governor’s tenure, it is highly unlikely that adequate consideration can be given to each of the Death Row cases.

We don’t even yet know the specifics of the process. We are, nonetheless, preparing our position on each of the cases from Cook County. The Prisoner Review Board has said it will give each side in these cases 15 minutes. If these critical cases in which thousands of hours have been spent in trials and appeals are reduced to 15 minutes a side, the message is clear that this entire process is based on appearance and not substance.

Our experience with these petitions has shown that there are usually five hours of hearing in death penalty cases. Given the resources of the board, that is not going to happen.

Apparently, the petitioners would be pleased not to have a hearing at all, since only a handful have requested one. This is virtually unprecedented; almost all previous petitions have sought oral argument. This new approach may reflect the petitioners’ hope that the governor will act on a wholesale basis to remove defendants from Death Row.

It cannot be stated strongly enough that there must be a full and open hearing on each of these cases. Those on Death Row are there because judges and juries have found them guilty and because appellate courts—several appellate courts—have affirmed those decisions. This does not mean that the system has been right in every case, but it does mean that the system should not be turned on its head, and all that has passed before totally disregarded. To do so would be an affront to many judges, but especially to the families of the victims. They have lived for years with the loss of a loved one to a brutal and violent crime and would now see the lawfully imposed penalty overturned with little thought, and certainly without any real input from them. There are those who advocate releasing all defendants from Death Row because “the system is broken.” That is a handy catch phrase, but it ignores the reality that each case must stand on its own facts. That is especially true in these most important cases when the ultimate penalty is imposed.

If, in fact, the governor was determined to review these cases in the right way, he would have set a schedule months ago for hearings on all the cases on Death Row. The time to move diligently and prudently would have been then, not in the final months of his term when decisions on these life and death issues will inevitably be based on a summary review.

Given this self-generated time crunch, the governor and the board should take a step back and commit to the public that he will act only on those cases in which there has been a full hearing.

It is difficult to emphasize enough how important a full case-by-case review is. A number of defendants on Death Row have not even claimed that they are innocent. In one case, defense attorneys filed a petition for clemency even though sentence had not yet been rendered, and the defendant did not claim to be innocent. Now, however, he is supposedly part of a “broken system.”

If the governor does proceed with these cases on a perfunctory or wholesale basis, he will have broken faith with the people of Illinois.

Richard A. Devine is president of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association and is the Cook County State’s Attorney.

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