Thursday, July 31


Governor supports reform to
state's death penalty
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[JULY 31, 2003]  CHICAGO -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich has announced his support for legislation to enact over a dozen major reforms of the state's death penalty system, issuing just one amendatory veto to remove a provision in the bill in order to protect due process rights for police officers accused of perjury and to prevent criminal convictions for murder, robbery, rape and other felonies from being overturned as a result of determination found under a lower standard of proof.

The legislation Blagojevich supports will prohibit the execution of people judged to be mentally retarded, require prosecutors to disclose promises made to witnesses in exchange for their testimony, permit the court to decertify a death penalty case if the sole evidence is uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informer or accomplice, allow the state Supreme Court to overturn death penalties if the sentenced is deemed fundamentally unjust, and require the court to consider a defendant's background as a victim of extreme emotional or physical abuse, among a host of reforms.

The death penalty reforms come on the heels of legislation signed by Blagojevich on July 17 requiring the videotaping of all homicide interrogations, making Illinois the first state in the nation to voluntarily do so.

“This legislation is an important step to try to build trust and integrity into our criminal justice system,” Blagojevich said.

“While I support the death penalty, I am not convinced that these reforms can immediately solve the problems facing our system of administering the death penalty,” Blagojevich continued. “As a result, the moratorium on capital punishment will remain in effect. Just as I will not lift the moratorium until I can be convinced that our system truly works, I will not rush into every proposed solution either.” 

The provision amendatorily vetoed by Blagojevich deals with the decertification of police officers in cases of alleged perjury. Under the provision, any defendant indicted for homicide would have up to two years to file a complaint against the police officer for committing perjury in their case (there are 800 to 900 homicide cases each year in Illinois). Regardless of the accusation's merit, the state's Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board would be required to investigate every accusation made by every homicide defendant. During that time, the officer in question could be suspended without pay (even prior to an investigation or final determination by the board), and any actions taken by that officer or testimony offered by that officer could be discredited by defense attorneys while the investigation proceeds.

If a majority of the board chooses to authorize a hearing, the case is then brought before an administrative law judge, who would use a lower, civil standard of proof to determine whether the officer committed perjury. If the judge recommends that the board decertify the officer, the board can then vote to approve the recommendation.

This approach differs from the manner in which perjury is currently addressed, in which a police officer indicted for perjury is prosecuted in criminal court, where a higher criminal standard of proof is used. As a result, if a jury finds, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a police officer has committed perjury, the officer's conviction can be appropriately used to re-examine that officer's testimony and involvement in other cases.

“Police officers shouldn't be treated different from anyone else. If a police officer is believed to have committed perjury, charge them with perjury and prosecute them like everyone else. Frankly, treating the police worse than everyone else is offensive,” Blagojevich said.

Under the decertification provision contained in the legislation, if the officer is found to have committed perjury under the lower, civil standard of proof, the defense attorney for the individual convicted of homicide could use the board's determination to help obtain a new trial and as evidence to overturn the client's conviction. Additionally, defense attorneys on any other criminal case involving the decertified officer may use the civil finding to attempt to overturn convictions in the same way they would have used a felony conviction.

Blagojevich said that a defendant found by a jury to be guilty of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt should not be in a position to overturn that conviction based on a finding of perjury by an administrative body determined under a lower standard of proof.

Blagojevich also said that the officer's civil decertification -- determined by a lower standard of proof -- would carry the same weight as a criminal felony perjury conviction and could help overturn criminal convictions in other cases, including homicides, where that police officer was involved.


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Finally, Blagojevich said that the accusation of perjury by a defendant convicted of homicide could be used by a defense attorney to discredit the officer's actions or testimony in other matters, even before the board has determined that the complaint was warranted or that perjury occurred -- potentially jeopardizing criminal prosecutions across the state.

“Under the current provision, not only would police officers accused of perjury by homicide defendants be treated differently from everyone else, the potential clearly exists to overturn hundreds of criminal convictions based on a finding of perjury determined by a lower standard of proof. That means that a determination of perjury under a lower civil standard could be used to free individuals convicted of murder, robbery, rape and other crimes under a tougher, criminal standard.”

The Law Enforcement Standards and Training Board has also requested that the provision not take effect as written, arguing that the provision's broad scope could lead to nearly 1,000 accusations of perjury against police officers each year. In a memo to Blagojevich, Thomas Jurkanian, executive director of the board, wrote, “It should be anticipated, that the greater majority, if not all, of defendants convicted of murder would file a petition for an administrative review by the board. What do they have to lose?”

The governor said that while he opposes the bill's decertification provision as written, he supports all of the other provisions of the bill, which will include:

--Prohibiting the execution of people judged to be mentally retarded.

--Requiring prosecutors to disclose promises made to witnesses in exchange for their testimony. 

--Permitting the court to decertify a death penalty case if the sole evidence is uncorroborated testimony of a jailhouse informer or accomplice. 

--Setting in place improvements to police practices and pretrial investigative efforts.

--Requiring the court to consider a defendant's background as a victim of extreme emotional or physical abuse in passing sentence and whether he or she suffers from a reduced mental capacity.

--Permitting a trial judge to set forth reasons for not concurring with a death sentence.

--Allowing the state Supreme Court to overturn death penalties if the sentenced is deemed fundamentally unjust.

--Mandating investigators turn over all evidence to prosecutors.

--Allowing for DNA testing for any criminal matter. 

In addition, the bill calls for studies to gauge the impact of the reforms and test new procedures. The legislation creates a 15-member Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee, which will annually report for five years to the governor and General Assembly on the impact of reforms that are being made to the capital punishment system.

The bill creates a two-year program in Cook County and three other areas of the state to study the legislation Blagojevich signed on July 17 to implement the videotaping or audiotaping of first-degree murder suspects. The attorney general and state's attorneys also are required to adopt guidelines on whether to seek the death penalty so it is uniformly prosecuted across the state, and the Illinois State Police are to choose three police departments to study sequential lineup procedures that encourage witnesses to make an exact identification rather than pick someone who appears similar to the offender.

[Illinois Government News Network
press release]

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