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IN THE NEWS - January 18, 2003: Illinois Governor Cancels Death Sentences - 2003-01-17

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.

Last Saturday, the top official in the American state of Illinois canceled court orders to execute one-hundred-sixty-seven prisoners. Illinois Governor George Ryan reduced most of the sentences to life in prison. He said he had no other choice because his state’s system of executing criminals is not fair.

A day earlier, Governor Ryan pardoned four other prisoners who were sentenced to die. He said the four men had been tortured by police and forced to admit to crimes they did not do.

Governor Ryan said he supported a state’s right to execute dangerous criminals when he took office four years ago. However, his position began to change after studies found that thirteen prisoners sentenced to death in Illinois should be released. The studies identified mistakes in the way those prisoners were tried. They also found new evidence that cleared some prisoners of charges.

Three years ago, Governor Ryan suspended all executions in the state. He said he could not risk sending innocent people to death. He then formed a committee to do study Illinois’s use of the death sentence and suggest reforms. The committee also examined many death penalty cases.

The group found questions about the fairness of the sentencing. It said some of the prisoners were given bad legal advice. It also discovered wrongdoing by police officers. The committee proposed eighty-five reforms. But Illinois’s legislature has yet to act on the reforms. Governor Ryan criticized lawmakers for failing to approve them.

The United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in nineteen-seventy-two. However, most states and the federal government have renewed the punishment.

Governor Ryan’s action has increased debate about the issue. About seventy-percent of the American public are said to support the death penalty. Yet many people question the fairness of the system and its ability to separate the innocent from the guilty.

Death penalty opponents hope that what happened in Illinois will influence other states. Opponents such as Amnesty International already have begun pressuring other governors and President Bush to reject the death penalty. Amnesty International says the punishment is no longer used in most countries.

Many supporters of the death penalty have condemned the Illinois Governor. They accused him of using his action last week to cover up problems during his term as governor. Political opponents also have linked him to wrongdoing.

George Ryan’s term in office ended on Monday. The state’s new governor says Governor Ryan’s decision was a big mistake. Already, government lawyers in the Chicago area have asked the state’s highest court to re-consider the death sentence for ten prisoners affected by the decision.

This VOA Special English program, IN THE NEWS, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.