CHICAGO—Catholics on both sides of the capital-punishment debate have welcomed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.

Reflecting growing concern about the possibility of executing people wrongfully convicted of capital crimes, Gov. George Ryan halted all executions and will appoint a commission to study the death penalty in his state.

The Republican, who supports the death penalty, cited a “shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row” in his Jan. 31 announcement. Since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, 13 men have been exonerated of crimes that had placed them on death row.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, supports the moratorium.

“We applaud the governor's action, because we've been supportive of the death penalty moratorium for more than a year,”said Doug Delaney, conference executive director. “As we've been saying all along, the evidence shows that there should be a moratorium, just to step back and look at the way the death penalty is being [applied].”

Gov. Ryan has placed no restrictions on his planned commission but said he hopes it will come up with recommendations in time for a legislative proposal in next year's spring session of the General Assembly.

“If nothing else, this will be an opportunity to look at the criminal justice system,” Bill Purcell, director of the Office for Peace and Justice of the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Register.

“There are fairness issues, especially when it comes to minorities and disadvantaged persons,” he added. “There are problems with adequate legal representation and basic human rights — some of the men were tortured to obtain confessions.”

Catholics support the death penalty to the same extent as the general public — at a rate of 70 to 80%, depending on the poll.

Tom Roeser of Chicago, chairman of the 700-strong Catholic Citizens of Illinois, told the Register that he supports the death penalty but believes a moratorium is needed in Illinois.

“You can't back [capital punishment] with the number of people falsely accused,” Roeser contended. “The validity of the death penalty is transcended by the errors made by prosecutors and the emergence of DNA tests.”

While Illinois is the first state to halt capital punishment for the purposes of studying its fairness, bills that would halt executions are being considered in a dozen states.

President Clinton has also said a moratorium on the federal govern-ment's use of the death penalty should be considered. In a Feb. 9 letter to Clinton, the head of the U.S. bishops' conference, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, urged such a moratorium on federal executions.

At least six states weighed a moratorium last year but none adopted it. The Nebraska Legislature approved a halt, citing racial bias in sentencing, but the governor vetoed it.

Catholic and Jewish leaders launched a national campaign in December to abolish capital punishment. The National Jewish/Catholic Consultation, backed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, attacked the death penalty on moral and social grounds. The Catholic and Jewish leaders said executions undermine the sanctity of human life and fail to deter crime.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan cited a ‘shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row.’

Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis a year ago provided a fresh impetus to the movement to end capital punishment. The Pope chastised Americans for their support of the death penalty. “The dignity of human life must never be taken away even in the case of someone who has done great evil,” the Holy Father said during a homily. “I renew the appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Gov. Ryan's action against the death penalty came after a series of stories in the Chicago Tribune blasting the state's criminal justice system. The investigation showed that roughly half of the state's capital cases that completed at least one round of appeals were reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing. The stories detailed what the newspaper described as misconduct by prosecutors and police, dubious forensic evidence and bias against blacks.

Since 1977 when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 610 inmates have been executed. Eighty-five people on death row have either been retried and acquitted or saw the charges against them dropped, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The most recent execution in Illinois was carried out in March 1999. None of the 150 inmates on death row have an exact execution date, though about a dozen may reach the end of the appeals process in the next year or so.

Three of the exonerated men once on death row were freed after journalism students at Northwestern University investigated their cases and showed their innocence. Their professor, David Protess, urged Ryan to end capital punishment.

“The system doesn't work — I'm not taking a moral position,” Protess told the Register. “It's run by people, and human judgment is fallible.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago applauded the moratorium. “The justice system should work for all people,” said in a statement on the Archdiocese of Chicago's Web page. “Sometimes people who are poor and people of color do not get adequate help and fair treatment in the judicial system.

“A good response to violence in our neighborhoods is not capital punishment but, rather, the ongoing reform of the legal and correctional systems, the strengthening of family life and other ties, and the fostering of respect for the dignity of all human life.”

Jay Copp writes from Chicago.(Catholic News Service contributed to this report)