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Call to End Death Penalty in Illinois

Center of Wrongful Convictions urges governor to sign death penalty ban into law

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January 17, 2011 | by Erin White
Randy Steidl, who was released and exonerated from prison in 2004 with help from Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions, talks with a reporter about the historic legislation to ban the death penalty in Illinois.
CHICAGO --- Consider the compelling evidence, and sign the legislation to ban the death penalty. That’s the message Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) sent to Gov. Patrick Quinn Thursday.

The Bluhm Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions held a discussion on the historic legislation to ban the death penalty that was passed by the Illinois Senate Jan. 11. The governor has until Mar. 12 to decide whether or not to sign the ban into law.

CWC client Randy Steidl joined CWC principals, students and others in Northwestern Law’s Lincoln Hall for the look back at the Center’s work related to the historic legislation and its push to get the governor to sign it into law.   

Steidl, released from the Illinois Correction Center in 2004, was the 18th person in Illinois to be released and exonerated, after having been sentenced to death since 1977. He shared his personal story and plea to the governor.

“If it had not been for the tireless efforts and the filing of that federal habeas corpus petition by the students and faculty from Northwestern, I’d be doing life without parole or dead by now,” Steidl said. “Now I feel like we are going to the Super Bowl with the governor, and he has the opportunity to stand up.”

Since its founding, following the 1998 National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty, held at Northwestern Law, the Center has been instrumental in the exonerations of 23 innocent men and women in Illinois.

“The danger of executing innocent people in Illinois is a genuine and real danger,” said Thomas Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic and associate dean for clinical education at Northwestern Law.  “We obviously don’t know what the governor will do, but what we hope to do is provide him with information he can use in making his decision.”

During the discussion, Steven Drizin, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and a leading expert on false confessions, shared his insights.

“Here in Illinois, 60 percent of all of our exonerations on death row relate to false confessions,” said Drizin, also a clinical professor and associate director of the Bluhm Clinic at Northwestern. “A number of reforms were put into place in Illinois after the first 13 exonerations, one was the videotaping of police interrogations, but the problem of false confessions still persists.”

Jane Raley, a senior staff attorney with the Clinic and professor of clinical law at Northwestern argued that unreliable “jailhouse snitch” testimony is present in 50 percent of death row exonerations nationwide.

“Why go to the pen when you can send a friend? You can’t do the crime, just drop a dime?” said Raley, quoting common jailhouse attitudes on the practice of incentivized confessions. “When the criminal justice systems offers criminals incentives to lie, they will.”

Karen Daniel, a professor of clinical law at Northwestern has successfully represented six people exonerated from death row in Illinois, including Randy Steidl. She spoke about the significance of Steidl’s case, and its impact on her and many of the Illinois legislators who voted for the ban. She hopes Gov. Quinn will take Steidl’s story into consideration and sign the legislation.

“Studying and understanding Randy’s case made me appreciate, as a lawyer, that the system of capital punishment can never be fair,” Daniel said, “and we can never be sure that we won’t convict the wrong people.”