Illinois death penalty opponents call for commutation

Opponents of the death penalty here have had a good year despite the bleak mood fostered in the wake of Sept. 11. Many see its abolition as an eminently achievable goal. Their hope is buoyed by the scathing April 15 report by a task force appointed by Gov. George Ryan calling for a major overhaul of Illinois death penalty legislation.

However, death penalty supporters in high places have dug in their heels regarding the 160 people already on Death Row. In spite of the fact that at least ten of these have presented evidence that they were convicted on the basis of confessions extracted by torture (or in some cases, even forged confessions), the criminal justice system continues to resist reviewing their cases. Two of the most blatant miscarriages of justice are those of Madison Hobley and Aaron Patterson, both of whom have been incarcerated for 15 years and both of whom charge their confessions came after being subjected to torture by police interrogators.

Hobley, a man with no prior criminal record, was convicted of setting a 1987 fire in which his wife, child and five other people died. During the intervening years much of the “evidence” used to convict Hobley has disappeared. There is no written record of his confession because the officer who supposedly took down the notes says he later “threw them away” because they “got wet.”

A key piece of evidence in Hobley’s trial was a gas can police claimed was used to torch the building. However, the Fire Department found no such can in their inspection of the building, and police later admitted that the can produced in Hobley’s trial was a “substitute” for the original can, which, like the notes, had “been accidentally destroyed.”

To top it off, the only witness the police presented against Hobley turned out to be a suspect in this and another arson case. After these revelations, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that there should be a rehearing on whether or not a new trial should be granted. On July 9 Cook County Criminal Court Judge Dennis Porter refused to grant a new trial; the case is now being appealed.

Patterson has served 15 years on death row for a murder he says he did not commit and also has presented credible evidence of police torture under former Area 2 commander Jon Burge. Patterson’s case is so compelling that another Cook County Judge granted Patterson’s request for a special prosecutor to examine the torture question.

Key to this decision was evidence that Richard Devine, presently Cook County State’s Attorney, did legal work for Burge when the City of Chicago was trying to fire him. Patterson’s supporters hope that the investigation will lead to a decision that will grant a new trial or an outright acquittal.

Because of the obstinate behavior of Cook County law enforcement officials, death penalty opponents are trying to get Ryan, who is not running for re-election, to commute the death sentences of all on death row.

The Republican candidate for governor, Attorney General Jim Ryan, is a particularly hard-line figure on criminal justice issues, although, like his Democratic rival Rod Blagojevich, he says he supports the governor’s moratorium for now. Both candidates say they are pro-death penalty.

Jane Bohman, a spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said, “People should tell Governor Ryan that all the people who are on death row were tried under a system that is completely broken, and the only way to ensure justice is to commute all death sentences before he leaves office in January.”



Emile Schepers is a contributor in Chicago. He can be reached at pww@pww.org