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Illinois seeks to modify death penalty

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A group of lawmakers pushing for an end to Illinois's moratorium on executions wants to replace the ''guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" standard to ''guilt beyond any doubt" for the penalty phase of capital cases, saying that will minimize the risk of the wrong person being put to death.

The proposal yesterday drew criticism from supporters and opponents of the death penalty, but the legislators said it could help stop the sort of wrongful convictions that led then-Governor George Ryan to halt all executions in 2000.

''This probably is the only way we're going to get the death penalty back," said Representative Chapin Rose, a Republican. ''It's just common sense. If we're going to extract the ultimate penalty, we need to be right."

Thirteen death-row inmates had been found to have been wrongly convicted by the time Ryan declared the moratorium.

Just before leaving office in January 2003, the Republican commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison and pardoned four others, declaring the state's capital justice system ''haunted by the demon of error."

Since then, the state has given the Supreme Court greater power to throw out unjust verdicts, offered defendants more access to evidence, and barred the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness.

Jurors in the guilt phase of capital trials would continue to convict defendants they find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But a death sentence could be imposed only if the jury has absolutely no doubt about guilt; otherwise, the sentence would be life in prison.

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