The governor of Illinois lifted the death sentences of 167 death row inmates on Saturday, in an "historic" blanket commutation which could have far-reaching implications for other US states, observers said.
Given the state's "shameful" track record of miscarriages of justice, and the possibility that more innocent people might be sitting on death row, Governor George Ryan said he felt he had no option but to commute the 167 sentences to life without the possibility of parole.
"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. Because of all of these reasons today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates," he said.
Illinois has exonerated 17 people since the state re-instated the death penalty in 1977 -- more than any other US state except Florida.
Half of the 300 capital cases in the state have been reversed for a new trial or resentencing.
In one case a man who was eventually cleared of two murders came within 48 hours of being put to death. Anthony Porter was freed after a group of enterprising journalism students working with a private eye tracked down the real killer, who subsequently confessed.
Four others, who were exonerated earlier this week, claimed -- independently of each other -- that they had been framed by police who tortured them into making false confessions.
Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange served nearly 60 years behind bars before their names were cleared.
An independent prosecutor is investigating whether the police commander who oversaw the group of rogue cops who allegedly tortured the four black men and dozens of others between 1972 and 1986 should face criminal charges.
But it was the staggeringly inconsistent application of the death penalty throughout the state and the failure of Illinois lawmakers to act on proposed reforms that ultimately persuaded the outgoing governor that he must act, Ryan told an audience at Chicago's Northwestern University.
The governor's historic vote of no confidence in this part of the judicial system was hailed by opponents of capital punishment who hope it will encourage some of the other 37 states that still have judicial execution on the books to look at what they believe are universal problems.
"Illinois is no worse than Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, California. This is a profoundly important step that he has taken and I think others will follow," said Barry Scheck, a lawyer with New York's Cardozo School of Law.