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A look inside Illinois' broken death penalty system
The real face of death row

April 5, 2002 | Page 5

THE FUTURE of the death penalty in Illinois hangs in the balance.

Two years ago, Republican Gov. George Ryan bowed to growing pressure and called a halt on all executions, admitting that the state's death penalty system was "broken."

The moratorium came on the crest of a wave of questioning of the injustices of the death penalty--not only in Illinois but across the country.

All of the factors that led to the moratorium--incompetent lawyers, police and prosecutorial misconduct, racism, innocent people sent to death row, along with the mentally retarded and juvenile offenders--continue today.

Now, the commission that Ryan appointed to study the capital punishment system is about to issue its study. According to press reports, the panel voted in favor of recommending abolition of the death penalty.

But the final study may not reflect this--because supporters of the death penalty are insisting that the commission limit itself to recommending reforms. As if this broken system could ever be fixed.

Meanwhile, the two candidates running to replace Ryan in this year's election say that they support Ryan's moratorium--but that they also support the death penalty in principle. In other words, either one might restart Illinois' machinery of death.

Ryan has said that he will review the cases of all 163 Illinois death row prisoners during his final months in office. What will Ryan learn?

MARLENE MARTIN, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, describes the reality of Illinois' broken death penalty system.

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GEORGE RYAN has said that he wants to personally review the cases of all death row prisoners in Illinois before he ends his term at the end of this year. Such a review would put faces, stories and circumstances on the statistical evidence that Ryan says led him two years ago to call a halt to executions.

But an even better way to learn the reality of the death penalty system would be to walk the tiers of death row--with me and my fellow abolitionists on one of our bimonthly visits, under a program that the state department of corrections agreed to a number of years ago.

Ryan would come upon Pontiac Correctional Facility rising up out of the farmland two hours southwest of Chicago--a collection of cement buildings, surrounded by numerous fences topped with razor wire.

After being signed in, he would be searched. He and our group would then be escorted by a guard through several checkpoints, with another sign-in at each.

While crossing the lawn to get to the death house, he would notice the bright red cages to our left--where death row prisoners are allowed out for one hour of "recreation" a day, after 23 hours spent in their tiny cells.

One final sign-in and pat down, and we would walk onto death row.

Ryan would probably first notice the noise. There is a constant racket bouncing off the walls of death row--prisoners yelling to one another, TVs and radios set to different stations, the clang of cell doors opening and closing.

Next, he would notice the musty smell hanging over the condemned unit--because the showers are on the tiers. Glancing down a tier, he would be astonished by how young most of the prisoners are.

And he would be struck immediately by the overwhelming number of African Americans and Latinos. Two out of every three prisoners he would see are people of color--more than twice their percentage in the state's population.

Walking down the first tier, we would stop by the cell of Mario Flores. Mario was a star diver who was headed for college in Florida when he was accused of murder. He has spent the last 18 years on death row.

From Mario, Ryan would learn about many of the injustices that are commonplace in death row cases. He would learn that there was no physical evidence linking Mario to the murder he was accused of--and that prosecutors based their case on the testimony of witnesses who received plea bargains on unrelated charges in exchange for their testimony.

He would learn that Mario's original lawyer barely presented a case--for example, never calling witnesses to corroborate Mario's alibi that he was at a New Year's party at the time of the killing. And he would learn that one of Mario's co-defendants signed two affidavits denying that Mario had anything to do with the crime.

Ryan would be left with no doubt that he was talking to an innocent man--and wondering if he would have signed Mario's death warrant if the moratorium weren't in place. And he would have to ask himself the same question that I do: How many more innocent people have been locked away on death row?

A few cells down from Mario is Reginald Mahaffey--a broken man. More likely than not, Ryan would be unable to communicate with Reginald, who spends day after day pacing back and forth in his cell and repeating the same phrases over and over.

Reginald is a member of the Death Row 10--a group of prisoners who were tortured by Chicago police, led by Commander Jon Burge, to extract confessions from them. In Reginald's case, police held him out a window to threaten him--and dropped him. He suffered a severe head injury and has never been the same since.

The cops, of course, claim that Reginald threw himself out the window in a suicide attempt--though his hands were cuffed behind his back at the time.

Further down the tier, we would meet Grayland Johnson, another member of the Death Row 10. Ryan would hear of the abuse that Grayland suffered--suffocated, beaten with a flashlight, hung out a window. He would learn that the Chicago Police Department issued a report admitting that the torture took place--and that Burge was fired for his part in it.

And yet, Ryan would hear, not a single member of the Death Row 10 has been given a new trial to prove that the confessions used to convict them were the result of torture. Meanwhile, Jon Burge today lives in Florida, where he spends his days fishing on his boat, named The Vigilante.

Next, we would stop at the cell of Renaldo Hudson. Ryan would be struck by Renaldo's candor--for he doesn't deny his role in the crime that he was sentenced to death for. But Renaldo would talk about the factors that landed him on death row at the age of 19--his background of poverty and abuse growing up, his problem with drugs.

A five-minute conversation would be enough to prove that this man--who admits his guilt--is not the monster that supporters of the death penalty always claim.

After several years of visiting death row, I've come to think of many of the people I've met as friends. Above all, their humanity is clear for anyone to see.

The statistics that describe the injustices of the death penalty are horrifying. But what is even more horrifying is to meet the people that represent those statistics.

Cell after cell after cell, meeting people who face a death sentence because they were too poor to afford a good attorney or they were an easy target for racist police, or because a politically ambitious prosecutor needed a conviction.

This is the U.S. injustice system's sickest face--with people put in front of a judge in a black robe, instead of a lynch mob in white robes. The colors may have changed, but this is state-sanctioned lynching--and it has to be stopped.

For more information about the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, to join the Campaign, or to subscribe to the New Abolitionist newsletter, visit

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