03/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Moratorium Nears Decade Mark, Democrats Show Little Leadership on Death Penalty

In two weeks, Illinois will mark the 10-year anniversary of Governor George Ryan's decision to halt executions in the state.

Ryan's controversial decision to enact a moratorium on the death penalty briefly put Illinois at the forefront of a national debate about capital punishment, with Amnesty International calling Illinois' death penalty system "too flawed to fix." Two years after establishing the moratorium, Ryan made an even more controversial decision: clearing death row and commuting 156 death sentences to life without the possibility of parole.

Following Ryan's actions, the state legislature added a number of procedural safeguards to capital prosecutions, forcing investigators to disclose their field notes and requiring that police videotape all interrogations in capital cases. Taken together, the reforms dramatically reduced the likelihood that police misconduct would result in innocent people being sent to death row.

But while the reforms have surely made the system fairer, they don't go far enough for two reasons. First, there is still no way to ensure that an innocent person will not be executed. Second, no matter how safe the system is, the broader underlying question of whether it is permissible for the government to take life remains unaddressed.

Wrongful convictions remain perhaps the biggest problem with the death penalty, the only criminal sanction that is truly permanent. Indeed, since Illinois resumed carrying out the death penalty in 1976, the state has executed 12 people -- and freed 13 from death row after new evidence exonerated them.

Part of the reason for wrongful convictions is that there is a long history of police and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases: the most famous death penalty case in Illinois involved the DuPage County state's attorney's prosecuting Rolando Cruz for sexual assault and murder despite knowing about evidence that cleared him.

Even in the absence of malfeasance, there is still the issue of incompetence. The Cook County state's attorney prosecuted the "Ford Heights Four" in the 1980s for a double murder of a couple even though witnesses pointed to other culprits. DNA evidence would later exonerate the four, and they would collect $36 million in damages following a civil rights lawsuit against the county.

On a more philosophical level, capital punishment ought to run contrary to our values, particularly in light of evidence that there are widespread problems with the actual administration of taking a human life. The United States is the only industrialized nation that clings to the death penalty, and many developing nations -- like Brazil and India -- have either abolished the practice or use it so infrequently that they have virtually abolished it.

Within the United States, too, there is a growing trend away from the death penalty. Liberal New England has always seen the practice as barbaric, and New Jersey became the 14th state to ban the practice in 2007, followed by New Mexico last year. This month, the Kansas legislature will begin hearings on whether it should become the next state to change its capital punishment system to life without the possibility of parole.

So is there a chance Illinois will become the 16th state to abolish the practice, or 17th if Kansas beats us to it? Unlikely.

Nearly all the Republicans running for governor say they would lift Ryan's moratorium and resume executions. The Democratic candidates, Governor Pat Quinn and Comptroller Dan Hynes, have taken more progressive positions, though of a decidedly milquetoast variety: both say they would keep the death penalty for heinous crimes, but add that the system needs further reforms and that the moratorium should remain in place. Neither has the guts to call openly for repeal. Oddly enough, the one person who does is political commentator Dan Proft, a conservative Republican.

Despite the gubernatorial candidates' timidity, the Illinois legislature has provided some progressive leadership on the issue. A coalition of House liberals and a diverse group of Senate Democrats (which includes two downstaters) have sponsored bills indicating their support for abolishing the death penalty. The Senate's genuinely liberal president, John Cullerton, who was instrumental in pushing death penalty reforms through the State Senate in 2003, is also against the death penalty.

We ought to expect more from the Democrats -- particularly the governor and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan -- who have governed Illinois lock, stock, and barrel for the past seven years. If Kansas is considering ending the death penalty, the Land of Lincoln really ought to be able to do the same. Otherwise, the author (and former Chicagoan) Tom Frank will have the perfect title for his next book: "What's The Matter With Illinois?"