CHICAGO (FinalCall.com)–Twenty-one retired federal and state judges Dec. 1 issued an open letter to Illinois Governor George H. Ryan supporting broad use of clemency power in light of systemic flaws in the Illinois capital punishment system.

“The finality of death demands that there be no question about the fairness and integrity of the process that leads to execution. We all agree that to approach that standard would require substantial reform,” says the letter.

It concludes, “We believe it would be appropriate to commute to life without parole all death sentences in which the system’s failings raise doubts about the fairness and accuracy of either the conviction or sentence. We respectfully urge you to remain open to recognizing that the systemic flaws in the Illinois capital punishment process may be of such magnitude that they affected all death sentences.”


Three years ago, with the exoneration and release of 13 innocent men from death row in Illinois, Gov. Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions and appointed a Special Commission on Capital Punishment, which has recommended that the General Assembly either reform the capital punishment system or abolish it. Before leaving office on Jan. 13, Mr. Ryan is expected to decide on requests to commute the sentences of all 160 prisoners presently on Illinois death row to life in prison without parole.

Signers of the letter were Illinois Appellate Court Justices R. Eugene Pincham; Illinois Supreme Court Justices Moses Harrison and Seymour Simon; U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Abner J. Mikva; U.S. District Court Judges George N. Leighton and Prentice H. Marshall; Illinois Appellate Court Justices Dom J. Rizzi and Anthony Scariano; Cook County Circuit Court Judges Richard J. Fitzgerald, Julian Frazin, Myron T. Gomberg, Howard R. Kaufman, Martha A. Mills, Sheila M. Murphy, Shelvin Singer, Marjan P. Staniec, Earl E. Strayhorn, and Harold W. Sullivan; Will County Circuit Court Judge John F. Cirricione; Stephenson County Circuit Court Judge Francis X. Mahoney, and Ogle County Circuit Court Judge John M. Rowe.

All of the judges are retired.

The letter cites a number of specific flaws in the death penalty system, including unqualified defense lawyers, unrecorded and possibly coerced confessions, and reliance on testimony from people who have something to gain, such as alleged accomplices or jailhouse snitches.

“Further,” the letter continues, “serious, long-standing questions exist about racial bias and whether the death sentence can be imposed fairly and uniformly under the statute, given the lack of uniform standards and oversight and overbroad eligibility factors.”

Responding to the claim of some that commutation disrespects the work of judges and jurors, the letter says, “That same concern for our highest values that motivates judges and jurors may well counsel the use of clemency to restore confidence in a system tarnished by inaccuracy and unfairness. Broad use of clemency is not a defiance or disrespect of the process, but rather an essential part of that process. It is not an abuse but rather a duty of the executive to commute sentences if systemic flaws have undermined justice.”

“These judges know the system better than anyone,” said Edwin Colfax, executive director of the Illinois Death Penalty Education Project, who coordinated the joint statement. “They have tried and reviewed countless cases, and they all agree that this death penalty system has fallen short of the level of certainty and fairness needed.”