Illinois Rewrites Death Penalty Rules

The Illinois Supreme Court has set new

rules to improve the state's capital punishment system, which in

the past quarter century has released more death row inmates than

it has executed.

The rules adopted Monday set minimum standards of training and experience for defense lawyers and prosecutors in capital cases.

For example, the lead lawyer on each side must have at least five years of criminal litigation experience; previously none was required. And judges who might preside over capital cases must attend regional training seminars every two years.

Illinois has been the center of attention in the death penalty debate since Gov. George Ryan halted all executions indefinitely nearly a year ago.

Ryan, a first-term Republican, made the decision because the state had released 13 death row inmates who had been wrongly convicted while executing just 12 others since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.

Under the new rules, prosecutors must let defendants know more quickly if they intend to seek the death penalty. The rules also specify in writing the existing principle that prosecutors must make a good-faith effort to notify defense attorneys of evidence that could help the defense.

The rules also establish new standards for disclosing DNA evidence and let trial judges decide if defense attorneys can question witnesses before trial. The guidelines, which become official in March, also provide seminars for judges who might preside over death penalty cases.

The head of one of the groups appointed by the state to study the capital punishment system praised the court's move.

"Instead of Illinois being an example [of problems], we can be a leader in death penalty reform," said Republican state Rep. Jim Durkin, who leads the House Prosecutorial Misconduct Committee.