Unit 1012 Cover Photo

Unit 1012 Cover Photo

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Murder victims' families brace as state revisits death sentences 13 overturned convictions spur hearings in Illinois.

CHICAGO -- When Gov. George Ryan For the former member of the Canadian House of Commons, see George Ryan (Canadian politician).

Surely there would be no question about the fate of her killer, William Peeples, who burst into Dawn Dudovick's Schaumburg apartment in 1988, stabbed her more than 30 times and left her to die.

Peeples not only left a trail of blood between his apartment and hers, but DNA tests confirmed that the blood in Peeples' sink was hers.

But now, Jim Dudovick and the relatives of scores of other murder victims find themselves fighting once again for what they thought they had won long ago: a death sentence for the killers.

"I thought the hell of all this was over and we could heal," Dudovick said. "Now it seems like we're fighting for justice for my daughter all over again."

Beginning Oct. 15, the Prisoner Review Board will hold hearings for at least 140 of the state's 160 death-row inmates, after which Ryan will decide if he wants to commute their sentences to life without parole.

The governor ordered the hearings after a string of challenges to Illinois death sentences.

Since the state resumed capital punishment in 1977, sentences have been overturned for 13 death-row inmates, including some found innocent; 12 inmates were executed during the same period.

While the reversals have cast doubt on the integrity of the state's capital-punishment system, the families of many murder victims say their open-and-shut cases shouldn't be subject to such scrutiny.

"I tell you what this means if this happens," said Jamie Tsambikou, whose family will attend the clemency hearing for Robert Turner who was sentenced to death for the 1985 slaying of her sister, Bridget Drobney. "It means what little justice my sister got will be undone. That will be the legacy of Governor Ryan."

For people like Crystal Fitch, the hearings will be unlike anything they've been through during the years of trials, motions and appeals.

"There's no new evidence, nothing new," Fitch said of the case against Anthony Brown who was convicted of raping and murdering her sister, Felicia Lewis, and killing Lewis' boyfriend, Reginald Wilson, in 1994.

"This is not one of those cases where DNA evidence could exonerate him. DNA tests confirmed he did it. He knows it, we know it," she said.

Prosecutors say that in case after case, the evidence against the death-row inmates is as strong as ever.

"They didn't leave bread crumbs, they left whole loaves of bread," said Cook County State's Attorney's Office spokesman John Gorman .

But with the hearings, family members say they can't take comfort in that evidence, as they did during the trials.

"The horror of this is that everything was done by the book," said Dawn Pueschel, whose brother and sister-in-law were beaten to death in Chicago in 1983. "There were no mistakes, everything pointed to them (two brothers convicted in the slayings) and still this is happening."

Some say the hearings have them thinking the unthinkable: That the killers whose sentences the governor is considering commuting to life without parole could someday walk out of prison.

"If they can drop them from death row, they can drop anything," said Andrea Covert, whose sister, Mimi Covert, 30, was abducted raped and murdered in 1985 by DeWayne Britz. Britz not only confessed, he led police to her body.

"He's only 40 now, that are young," Covert said. "Anything could happen."

The hearings come at the end of an administration that has been battered by the continuing federal investigation of the selling of driver's licenses for bribes, mostly under Ryan's watch when he was secretary of state. While Ryan, who hasn't been charged, gained international attention for his stand on the death penalty, some family members wonder if his efforts have more to do with diverting attention from the scandal.

Ryan's office says the governor is acting out of concern for a badly broken system of capital punishment.

"Nobody can know what they (victims' relatives) go through," Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said. "What would make those tragedies worse is executing the wrong person, as we almost did 13 times."


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