A Case for Clemency?
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WOMAN: The only thing I’ve got left of my son is an obituary and a picture. (Sobbing) That’s all.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chilling emotional testimony was heard from the families of murder victims over nine days of unprecedented hearings by the Illinois prisoner review board. And the board heard equally passionate requests to reduce the death sentences of 142 prisoners on Illinois Death Row to life imprisonment.
SPOKESMAN: There is nothing about this crime that on its face has any of the special factors that would make it appropriate for the state to take Stanley Howard’s his life.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The hearings were called after outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan promised to review all Death Row cases. Two years ago, the governor imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, after 13 men on Death Row were found to be innocent and released. Board member Jorge Montes says the hearings will assist the governor as he decides what to do.
JORGE MONTES, Illinois Prisoner Review Board: It’s to screen out cases for the governor, so the governor can have… be better informed about what cases he should commute, sentences from death to life perhaps, or even free certain individuals.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two issues dominated the hearings: The fairness of the arrests and trials that led to sentences of death, and the suffering of victims’ families who demanded that those sentences be maintained. Defense attorneys who wanted their clients’ death penalties converted to life in prison said their cases would have been adjudicated differently if reforms recommended by a recent blue ribbon commission had been in place; reforms like not allowing inadequate representation, which attorney Paul Dengel blamed for Stanley Howard’s death sentence for murder and armed robbery. Dengel asked the governor for a pardon for his client.
PAUL DENGEL, Howard’s Defense Attorney: Stanley Howard’s on Death Row for a crime he did not commit. This is the governor’s nightmare scenario. It’s the nightmare scenario for any fair-minded person. He’s on Death Row because the system failed him. His lawyers were incompetent and didn’t find the witnesses that could have proved that he couldn’t have been the killer.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the case of Terrence Brooks, the issue was whether unreliable eyewitness identification led to the Chicago street gang leader for a triple murder.
STEPHEN CLARK, Brooks’ Defense Attorney: How can we determine that people from these gangs in this difficult neighborhood were telling the truth when they identified an opposing gang member? And I suggest to you that we really can’t. And that’s why I’m asking in an abundance of caution and prudence that the governor allow my client to spend the rest of his life in prison rather than execute him because he could, in fact, be innocent.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the mother of Terrence Brooks’ victim, a 13- year-old boy, pleaded with the board to maintain brooks death sentence.
RHONDA BUSSLE, Victim’s Mother: My son was robbed of his life at the age of 13. Never again can I see him. I just wish that you all would take into consideration and not let this man off of Death Row.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It was having to relive the loss of their loved ones that made testifying so painful for victim’s families. Mary Laughlin listened to prosecutors describe the brutal rape and murder of her daughter Alice.
KEVIN BYRNE, Cloutier Prosecutor: He wrapped a fan belt around her neck, strangled her into unconsciousness, and then put his ear to her naked body, heard a faint heartbeat, and finished the job with that fan belt.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 12 years after the murder, time had done little to heal Laughlin’s grief.
MARY LAUGHLIN: If she’d lived to be 100, she’ll always be my little baby Alice.
SPOKESMAN: Thank you very much.
MARY LAUGLIN: I don’t know. I just can’t comprehend. I’ve been through two trials. This is the second time I’ve been down here. I don’t understand. I just don’t.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The board even heard from one of the three women who managed to escape from Cloutier.
ELIZABETH HALILI, Victim: He said, “turn around,” and he pushed my face toward the back, and he uncovered a naked woman’s body. And he said, “if you don’t do what I say, you’re going to end up just like her.” And I knew then I wasn’t going to survive.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Elizabeth Halili managed to bolt from the car and later identified Cloutier for the police.
ELIZABETH HALILI: And I beg and plead with you to please give him the death penalty.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cloutier’s defense attorney, Barry Ravitz, said that as riveting as Halili’s testimony was, she really shouldn’t have been allowed to speak since Cloutier only got life imprisonment for her kidnapping and rape, and therefore it was not a death penalty issue.
BARRY RAVITZ, Cloutier’s Defense Attorney: I feel for Miss Halili, but I ask this board to remember that you are not here to pass judgment on any act of my client with respect to Miss Halili.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Because Cloutier got life imprisonment for some of his crimes and the death penalty for others, Ravitz argued that all sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment.
BARRY RAVITZ: And the hard case here is applying these rules to someone like my client, Bob Cloutier, and yet that’s what you are really charged with doing here, and I ask you, please, to do that.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The gut-wrenching testimony from victims and family members brought editorials from both Chicago newspapers to shut the hearings down. The Chicago Tribune campaigned for death penalty reform after breaking many of the stories about the 13 innocent men released from Death Row. But Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold says the hearings backfired on defense attorneys and anti-death penalty activists.
BRUCE DOLD, Chicago Tribune: I think they… they saw this as a way to put the death penalty on trial. I think what they failed to understand is that the people in the state make a distinction. They’re aghast that 13 people have been wrongly sent to Death Row, but a majority of the public here still supports the death penalty. And what they’re seeing in these hearings is that the death penalty, by and large, is reserved for really, really bad people.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But anti-death penalty advocates, like Rob Warden, whose center filed 22 clemency petitions, and advised many other defense attorneys on their petitions, says even in cases of the most heinous crimes there is the possibility of wrongful convictions.
ROB WARDEN, Center for Wrongful Convictions: Every single person there has been convicted by a system that has been shown to have been absolutely dysfunctional. Fully 5 percent of the people who have been sentenced to death in the state of Illinois since restoration of the death penalty have been shown to have been innocent.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The emotional testimony from the victims has had a major impact on the debate on the death penalty in Illinois. When the 13 innocent men were released from Death Row, support for the death penalty softened. Now, anti-death penalty activists fear that the hearings may have turned that support back in the other direction. As the hearings progressed, Governor Ryan stepped back from his earlier position of considering a mass clemency for all those on Death Row.
GOV. GEORGE RYAN, Illinois: I would guess that at this point, that I have pretty much ruled out blanket commutations based on the hearings and the information that I’ve gathered so far. Now, yeah, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But anti-death penalty advocates like Warden still say the governor should grant a mass clemency.
ROB WARDEN: Absolutely. He has no other moral choice. He must do that. Nothing else can solve the problem.
SPOKESMAN: If the governor gives mass clemency to everyone on Death Row, he will kill the reform of capital punishment in this state. I think there will be such an angry backlash at that, that no legislator would be willing to stick his neck out to vote for a reform measure.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The governor must make his decision before he leaves office in January.