New trials set pace for the refilling of death row

By Gus Bode

George Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences of 164 people on Death Row is bittersweet for Jason Cook of Pinkneyville, who is being tried for double murder. If convicted, he could become one of the first criminals to find himself on Illinois’ vacant Death Row.

Cook, 29, is currently accused of smothering or strangling Sheila Sims and drowning her 6-year-old daughter, Erica. The prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty.

Ryan announced a decision Saturday to commute all Death Row sentences to life in prison without parole. This decision of a blanket commutation came after working for three years with a bi-partisan commission to reform the death penalty and the entire criminal justice system in Illinois. Eighty-five recommendations were made by the commission to eliminate errors, some of which have been included in new Supreme Court rules governing capital cases.

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This was a historical move made by Ryan in terms of reforming the criminal justice system in Illinois, yet it didn’t sit well with many state prosecutors.

“I think it was abominable, unimaginable how one person could abuse power of office like that. I feel very sad for the families, not just for the past weekend, but for everything Ryan has drug them through, throughout the last three years,” said Dave Stanton, state prosecutor in the Cook case.

Though the steps that newly elected Blagojevich will take to reform the Illinois criminal justice system have not been detailed, Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, is currently sponsoring legislation that would give victim’s families a stronger voice in commuted sentences for the future. House Bill 191 will set forth a possible procedure for future governors to adhere to before issuing final decisions regarding clemency.

Guidelines include preventing the governor from granting clemency without a full hearing and report from the Prisoner Review Board. It would require the board to notify the victim and the state’s attorney prior to any hearing on a petition for clemency. The board would also have to conduct an extensive hearing on the merits of each petition including materials submitted by victims’ families. An open report would then be sent to the governor for his consideration.

Last year $20 million in legislative funds was issued for defense lawyers and prosecutors to fund death penalty cases from the time of trial through the execution. That fund ran dry before the criminals were even executed, said defense lawyer Tim Capps.

The pace in which death row will become occupied once again remains unknown.

A defense lawyer must have a special license to try death penalty cases. Capps, who operates defending capital cases for the lower third of the state, said it is hard to go up against well-financed, experienced, and determined defense lawyers. He is defending two cases that began as death penalty cases in Southern Illinois.

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Cook, who will go to trial late February, may be one of the first men back on death row under a new governor, although there are more pending trials.

Cook County has 50 pending capital cases seeking the death penalty, while another 10 to 15 are cases pending throughout the rest of the state.

Four men were sentenced to death in Illinois in 2002 and one person in 2001, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

“The power to commute, is the power to grant mercy in individual cases where mercy is warranted,” said Bill Schroeder, a professor in criminal law. “The death penalty is random. Even if the system doesn’t work very well, it doesn’t mean that some people who got it didn’t deserve it,” he said.

Reporter Jackie Keane can be reached at [email protected]

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