Saturday, October 04, 2003

Aftermath in Illinois

The higlights...
Death row reborn, but sentences decline

Just two men are waiting to die in the tiny cells on Illinois' once-empty death row, locked away in a hollow prison gallery that some predict could still be largely vacant years from now.

....Death sentences are running well behind the state's average of 11 a year in the decade before former Gov. George Ryan made news worldwide in January by pardoning four condemned prisoners and sparing the lives of 167 others.

....Capital punishment opponents hail the decline as a sign that executions are falling out of favor because of the furor over a flawed system that sent 17 men to death row who later were found to be wrongfully convicted.

Some prosecutors around the state acknowledge that death penalty cases probably have been stifled in the aftermath of Illinois' capital punishment debate, but not by a sense of justice.

Instead, they blame new legal requirements intended to safeguard death penalty cases, along with uncertainty over the Legislature's ongoing efforts to overhaul the system.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, credit a reform already on the books that provided more state money for defendants, leveling the financial playing field in death penalty cases.

...Death sentences dipped from a decade-high 17 in 1996 to just three in 2001, the year after the defense fund was created, according to Illinois Department of Corrections records.

..."Though prosecutors are saying they are less apt to seek the death penalty, it appears they are still using it as a tool to hold over a defendant's head to bring about a possible plea agreement," Howard, capital case coordinator for the Cook County public defender, said.

...Coles County State's Attorney Steve Ferguson sent the first killer to Illinois' then-empty death row in February, when 27-year-old Anthony Mertz of Charleston was convicted of murdering Eastern Illinois University student Shannon McNamara in 2001.

Ferguson said he sought the death penalty for the first time in his 11 years as state's attorney because of the cold-blooded nature of the murder and evidence that linked Mertz to another killing two years earlier.

"It's not something that I celebrate, if you will, as a notch in the belt. But I guess what I feel good about is that we made the system work," he said.

Mertz was joined on death row in August by 61-year-old Curtis Thompson of Toulon, convicted in a 2002 shooting spree that killed Stark County deputy Adam Streicher and James and Janet Giesenhagen of Toulon.

Alan Streicher, the deputy's father, supported the death sentence, even though he thinks Thompson's life might be worse in a prison's general population rather than a private death row cell.