A Death Penalty Lesson From Illinois

It's a strange quirk of politics that, with the death penalty coming to the fore as an issue in the 2012 presidential race, the incumbent president is from Illinois while the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is a Texan.

Texas, as we've all come to know of late, is America's capital punishment capital, with a record 234 inmates executed during the Rick Perry administration. Illinois, on the other hand, just recently abolished the death penalty. A spate of 13 overturned death sentences at the beginning of last decade succeeded in bending the conscience of then-governor George Ryan, also a Republican, who suspended all executions and commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 death row prisoners to life. The state passed a series of reforms, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the ban into law in March.

For the media reporting on last night's U.S. Supreme Court-mandated stay of execution for Texas inmate Duane Buck, Illinois' struggles with capital punishment should be instructive.

The court is reviewing Buck's original sentencing hearing, during which an expert witness for the state, Walter Quijano, testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black. Texas has already retried six other death penalty cases in which Quijano testified. Despite a growing chorus of calls to reconsider Buck's case (including a plea from one of the prosecutors) the state of Texas repeatedly rejected Buck's attorneys' requests for a new sentencing hearing.

If Buck's death sentence is overturned, his case will be just the latest indication that the Texas system for doling out death is plagued by prejudice and ineptitude. The Perry administration has already seen the exoneration of at least five death row inmates. The 13 overturned death sentences in Illinois sparked sweeping reforms to the state's death penalty system that led, ultimately, to its abolition. In Texas, how many more will it take?

The prisoners freed from death row in these states had allies and advocates working doggedly on their behalf -- and they also had remarkable good fortune. It's inconceivable, with so many exonerations over the past decade, that there aren't more wrongly condemned prisoners whom the system has failed awaiting executions they don't deserve because they lack representation.

Duane Buck's ultimate fate is still up in the air, but last night's Supreme Court action, the example of Illinois, and the slow stream of innocent men walking out of death row make clear that the system of capital punishment in Texas is a tragically corrupted enterprise in desperate need of reform. And it's time the media start taking note of that.