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 Sunday, 12 January, 2003, 12:37 GMT
Calls for US death penalty review
Cathy Gueswein and former death row inmate Gary Dotson
Wrongful convictions changed Ryan's mind
Pressure is growing for the death penalty to be suspended across the United States, following the commuting of all the death sentences in the state of Illinois.

US DEATH PENALTY
Reinstated in 1976
820 executions since then
Nearly 3,700 on death row
Used in 38 states
Democrat Senator Russ Feingold called for a national review and a moratorium on all executions.

In what campaigners have described as a watershed moment, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, decided the capital punishment system there was unsafe and on Saturday emptied death row.

His decision was met with outrage and dismay by prosecutors and relatives of murder victims.

'Turning point'

Experts quoted by the US media said the effects of Mr Ryan's decision would be felt nationally, because it was based on the most extensive study of the death penalty since it was re-established in most states in the mid-1970s.

The Washington Post said in an editorial that Governor Ryan - who leaves office on Monday - left "a model for the nation as to how a state can begin facing the problem of the death penalty".

Governor George Ryan
The Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral

Governor George Ryan

The human rights group Amnesty International said his actions could empower other states to end capital punishment.

"Illinois sets an example simply because its death penalty system is similar to that of many states," said Amnesty's US director, William Schulz.

The country's main anti-death penalty group also applauded Governor Ryan's move.

"This is a watershed moment, a turning point in the debate over capital punishment in the United States," Mr Hawkins, of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said.

But Mr Ryan's successor criticised the commuting of the death sentences to life imprisonment for 156 convicts.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We're talking about people who committed murder," Democrat Rod Blagojevich said.

But, he said, he would respect the moratorium.

Relatives' anger

When Mr Ryan was elected to the post in 1998 he was a supporter of the death penalty.

Vern Fuling with a picture of his son William, murdered in 1985
My son is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done

Vern Fuling

But three years ago he halted executions, after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977.

A commission set up by the governor found that the death sentences were given disproportionately to the poor, people from ethnic minorities and in cases in which informers' evidence was used.

"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," he said announcing his decision on Saturday.

"I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing that I made the right decision," he said.

But the reaction from families of victims of those who sentences have been commuted was very different.

"My son [William] is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done," said Vern Fuling.

William Fuling was murdered in 1985, and now his killer will serve life imprisonment, instead of facing execution.

"This is like a mockery," said Mr Fuling.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Justin Webb
"There is still wide support for capital punishment in the US"
  Illinois Governor George Ryan
"I had to act"
  Paul Rosenzweig, Heritage Foundation
"The governor has in effect condemned his entire state"
See also:

01 Nov 02 | Americas
24 Jun 02 | Americas
16 Apr 02 | Americas
16 Feb 01 | Correspondent
15 Oct 02 | Americas
31 Jan 00 | Americas
Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.


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