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Illinois' broken death penalty system:
Too flawed to fix

February 8, 2002 | Page 5

THE DEATH penalty is too flawed to fix--and it's time to end it once and for all. That's the message that some 600 people--packed into the United Church of Hyde Park in Chicago for a January 31 rally--wanted to send to Illinois lawmakers.

Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the featured speakers. He was joined on the platform by Perry Cobb, Gary Gauger, Anthony Porter, Steve Smith and Darby Tillis--five of the 13 men proven innocent and freed from Illinois death row during the past 14 years. Family members of those still on death row, plus lawyers and activists, spoke out.

The rally, sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, marked the two-year anniversary of a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Faced with growing evidence that the death penalty system was "broken," Republican Gov. George Ryan declared the halt on executions and appointed a 14-person panel to study the system.

That commission is about to release its findings. Press reports indicate that the panel will suggest as many as 75 reforms. And according to the reports, the panel voted 8 to 5 in favor of recommending abolition of the death penalty.

But whether this will appear in the final report--and whether politicians pay attention to any of the findings--depends on the strength of the opposition that death penalty opponents build.

As Jackson told the cheering crowd last week, "You couldn't really fix slavery. You couldn't modify it. Good slave masters, bad slave masters. Bad slave masters kill you instantly. Good slave masters kill you softly. We had to abolish the slavery system. Let's abolish the death penalty."

Here, Socialist Worker prints excerpts from speakers at the Chicago rally.

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"The system tried to kill me"

GARY GAUGER was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of his parents, mainly because of a supposed confession fabricated by police and testimony from a jailhouse snitch. He was only proven innocent and freed because of an investigation by a Northwestern University law professor and his students.

IT'S NOT the system that saved me. The system tried to kill me. It's people like you that saved me.

A little over two years ago, we went to [the Illinois capitol in] Springfield to testify before a House subcommittee, just on the prospect of discussing a moratorium on the death penalty. Fourteen panel members heard testimony--moving testimony from people, like me, who were exonerated.

After a whole day, we couldn't sway one vote. We were so discouraged. Then, four days later, Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty. People are watching.

Police officers perjured themselves 150 times during my trial. Perjury in Illinois is punishable by five years in prison. But all of the officers got promoted. The prosecutor in my case is running for judge today.

That's the system. The system can't be fixed. The politicians aren't interested in justice. It takes grassroots movements like this to bring about change.

"Help me to destroy this monster"

GRICELDA CEJA is the mother of Raul Ceja, an innocent man who was the first person sentenced to death during Ryan's moratorium.

ON THE second anniversary of the moratorium, it's more important than ever to get out truth about the death penalty. We need everyone to know what this death penalty system is all about. It's racist, it's unfair, it kills the innocent and it's cruel and unjust.

Whenever we hear politicians talk about the death penalty, we also hear their ideas on how to fix it. What is it that they want to fix and for what purpose? To kill in a quicker and more efficient manner or to kill in greater numbers?

Last year, I came here to ask for your help to change this system, not only for my son, but for all the other men who sit on death row.

I'm back, and I'm asking for your help again. But this time, I'm asking you to help me destroy this monster.

"We're going to send a message"

ALICE KIM is a national organizer for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

TWO YEARS ago today, abolitionists struck a blow against the machinery of death. We exposed a broken system and won a moratorium in Illinois. This sent shock waves across the country and put the issue of the death penalty into the national spotlight.

Two years later, it has become overwhelmingly clear that the death penalty system is still broken. Ninety-nine people have been freed from death rows across the country, and we know without a doubt that there are more innocent people on death row today.

For two years in a row, executions have declined nationally. At least 61 local governments have passed resolutions supporting moratoriums on executions. We've come a long way. But make no mistake--we have a fight on our hands.

We have the Texecutioner who stole the White House running the country. This man oversaw more than 150 executions, refused to sign a bill to ban executions of the mentally retarded and allowed at least one innocent man, Gary Graham, to be executed. But that wasn't enough for Bush, and he became the first president since the 1960s to execute someone.

Now Bush claims to be fighting a worldwide war against terrorism. I say that he exploited the tragedy of 9/11 to declare all-out war on all of us. In order to squelch dissent, he's making an unprecedented attack on our civil liberties. And if Bush presides over stark injustices at home, we can be sure he's not pursuing justice abroad.

There are those who want to bring back the death penalty in Illinois. All of the gubernatorial candidates, Democrats included, support the death penalty. They want a kinder, gentler death penalty, but we know there's no such thing. As Illinois death row inmate Stanley Howard put it, "Don't be bamboozled by their cosmetic solutions. You can't put a Band-Aid on the death penalty's gaping wounds."

We know that the death penalty has nothing to do with justice--it's a tool used by politicians to further their careers. Tough on crime? Let's call it what it really is--a war on Black people and a war on the poor. We've got two sets of laws in this country--one for the rich and one for the poor and most vulnerable in society.

The death penalty is on trial right now, and we have to tip the balance in our favor. Just as the Illinois moratorium propelled our movement forward, when we win abolition in Illinois, we will send a message to the entire country that abolition is the only way to go.

Justice for the Death Row 10!

THE DEATH Row 10 are fighting for justice from behind the bars of Illinois death row. They are a group of men who were tortured by Chicago cops determined to extract confessions.

All of the Death Row 10 are African American--further proof of the racism that infects the death penalty system. "It's a fact that you're more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white and if you are Black, Latino of a person of color," Tim Lohraff, lawyer for Nathson Fields and Death Row 10 member Aaron Patterson, told the January 31 rally.

"We're not talking about innocence now. We're talking about a fundamental sense of justice. We're talking about not valuing the victim's life because of race. We can't have the death penalty at all for this reason alone."

The stories of the Death Row 10 expose the staggering brutality of the criminal justice system. But these prisoners have become fighters--who organized themselves within prison walls to challenge the death penalty.

Activists on the outside are demanding that Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine grant new trials. The Death Row 10 deserve justice --now!

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