TOPICS > Politics

Illinois Death Penalty

February 4, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The work is hard, but Gary Gaugher appreciates life on a small organic farm about two hours north of Chicago. Seven years ago Gaugher’s life was in the balance. He was convicted and sentenced to death sentence for the brutal murders of his parents in 1993.

GARY GAUGHER: I was prepared to die. If they were going to take this absurdity to its conclusion, there was nothing I could do about it. Of course I was prepared to die. They lock you up, you go from room to room, you do what they tell you, and eventually they lead you down the hall, strap you to a gurney and kill you.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Any you were innocent?

GARY GAUGHER: I was innocent, and I knew it and everybody who knew me knew it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Gaugher lived with his parents at their farm when they were killed. He found their bodies, called police, and after a long night of questioning was charged with their deaths. He says he never confessed, but police said he knew details of the murders only the killer would know.

GARY GAUGHER: The best reason I can think of that police did this was for pure selfish ambition. They all received promotions very soon after my trial.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: His wife and family remained supportive. And one year later courts ruled that Gaugher’s confession had been illegally obtained, and prosecutors dropped the death penalty request. Three years later Gaugher was released and got back to his farm. Two members of the Wisconsin Outlaws Motorcycle Gang have now been indicted and are awaiting trial for the murder of his parents. Gaugher is one of 13 Illinois men whose death sentences have been overturned since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977. The reversals prompted Illinois Governor George Ryan to act.

GOV. GEORGE RYAN, Illinois: I now favor a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state’s shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on Death Row. I can’t support a system which in its administration has proven to be so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare: the state’s taking of innocent life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Governor Ryan was careful to say he still supports the death penalty. But those who don’t, like Northwestern University Journalism Professor David Protess, saw the governor’s moratorium as the first step in abolishing capital punishment.

DAVID PROTESS, Northwestern University: I think it’s very significant, not only because it’s the first state in the country to declare a moratorium on executions, but because the man who declared it is a Republican governor who is pro death. And therefore he has taken a rather bold action that I think sends a signal throughout the country and I think may well affect the presidential campaign since he is the campaign chairman for George W. Bush in Illinois.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In 12 of the 13 Death Row cases in Illinois, new evidence of the condemned men’s innocence was brought to the attention of the court, not from within the system, but by outsiders — private investigators, law students, and even undergraduate journalism students. Anthony Porter was only two days away from execution when David Protess’ undergraduate journalism students unearthed evidence that led to the real killer. Porter was released for a joyful reunion with his defenders.

ANTHONY PORTER: Thank God everything happened. All glory goes to God.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: How had the students done it?

DAVID PROTESS: The reason my students were able to do this when the prosecutors did not is because the police started with the assumption that Anthony Porter was guilty and tried to build a case around him. They railroaded him. We started with no assumption at all. We started with an objective view of this. We didn’t know if he was guilty or innocent. Our goal was to search for the truth. And if the police had done that here an innocent man wouldn’t have spent 16 years of his life on Death Row.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Shawn Armbrust was one of the students who worked on the porter case. After graduation she joined the Center on Wrongful Convictions to continue to work with Protess and others on Death Row cases. She sees the Porter case as a wake-up call.

SHAWN ARBRUST, Center for Wrongful Convictions: I think it was really important, first of all, because Anthony was going to be executed and he was innocent — and second of all, because I think the fact that it was a bunch of 21-year-old kids basically skipping class to unearth new evidence was really sobering to a lot of people. I think it clued a lot of people in that the justice system really is broken.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: An earlier class of Protess’s students and pro bono lawyers helped find the DNA evidence that exonerated Dennis Williams in 1996. Williams thanked that class, but after 18 years on Death Row he couldn’t mask his anger.

DENNIS WILLIAMS: If I were to describe my bitterness or anger, I don’t think I could give a description to it, you know, but it’s here. It exists.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But there are others, like Donald Mikesh, who are very angry about the governor’s moratorium. His 27-year-old son left two young daughters when he was brutally murdered in 1996. Donald Mikesh, Jr. had returned home after nine years in the military, and had just purchased a new condominium where he and two friends were beaten and stabbed to death by two men and a woman. Mikesh was stabbed 41 times, his head cracked open with an iron pipe. Prosecutors asked for the death penalty, but one juror refused, and all were given life sentences. It wasn’t enough for Mikesh.

DONALD MIKESH: They were such brutal savages that they should not be breathing this air on earth. It’s not only because it’s my son. I’ll walk with other family members that I just met, and I still believe their offenders that are under the death penalty should get it also.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Though he didn’t like the result, Mikesh thought his son’s murderers got a fair trial.

DONALD MIKESH: They had 14 jurors — there’s 12 and two alternates — and they all come out with the same end result that they were guilty. So everything was presented to them — all the evidence, all the technicians and everything that came in there — caught red-handed, saturated with blood and admitting to the guilt of what they had done.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But a Chicago Tribune investigation last November found that nearly half of the Death Row cases in Illinois were so rife with errors they were reversed on appeal. In 33 Death Row cases, the defendants attorneys had been disbarred or suspended. Rita Fry heads the Cook County Public Defenders Office. She agrees that inexperienced defense attorneys are a serious problem.

RITA FRY, Cook County Public Defender: It is a nationwide problem. It is not just an Illinois problem. It’s nationwide. I mean, there have been cases where real estate lawyers have been appointed to represent people who have no concept. I mean they’ve done a death penalty case in two days. I mean, that’s ridiculous.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cook County’s top prosecutor, Richard Devine, is so concerned about errors he called for a review of all Cook County cases on Death Row, and decided, even before the governor’s moratorium, not to ask for any execution dates until the review is complete.

RICHARD DEVINE, Cook County State’s Attorney: We have to have a process that guarantees that we don’t charge and convict the wrong people. I fully believe in that; we’re not doing anything for that victim or for the community if we don’t have a system that has the highest standards to make sure that we get the right person.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Both Fry and Devine support the establishment of a trial bar with specific experience and training qualifications for defense attorneys and prosecutors who try capital cases. But Protess says even that won’t fix the system.

DAVID PROTESS: I think it’s broken probably in an overriding sense in that the system’s run by human beings who are fallible. And when it comes to the death penalty, we expect infallibility.

DONALD MIKESH: I didn’t see any mistakes being made, and it was all humans doing the presenting. And I didn’t see any mistakes whatsoever. People have got to realize don’t come in there and be Mr. Do-gooder and stop a death and not have someone take a life. Get in there and see. What about the victims life? Where are their voices being heard?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Since 1976 when the Supreme Court ruled that states could reinstate the death penalty, 85 men and women who once faced the death chamber have had their cases overturned. And ten of the 38 states with a death penalty are now considering moratoriums.