For nine days, they will call the names of almost every inmate on death row for clemency hearings ordered by Gov. George Ryan. They will listen as a parade of defense lawyers, prosecutors, expert witnesses and victims' relatives argue for or against execution.
In all, at least 140 of Illinois' 160 death row inmates will get a hearing, either in Chicago or in Springfield. It is the largest number the board has considered at one time, and probably the most sweeping review in U.S. history.
"This is remarkably historic and without precedent,'' said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. ``All eyes in the death penalty movement are on Illinois.''
The board will make confidential recommendations, but any decision to commute sentences will be up to Ryan, a Republican who has been at the center of the debate on capital punishment since he ordered a moratorium on executions in January 2000.
Since the state resumed capital punishment in 1977, 13 inmates have seen their death sentences overturned, including some found innocent; 12 inmates were executed during the same period.
There has been speculation that if the hearings turn up a hint of just one more innocent person, Ryan will grant clemency to all.
"He fears there is another Anthony Porter case or another Rolando Cruz case out there,'' Ryan spokesman Dennis Culloton said, referring to two death row inmates who were exonerated in new trials.
Some say the effects of a blanket clemency, which Ryan has hinted at in recent months, would ripple beyond Illinois.
"One thing it would definitely say to governors and legislatures around the country is if you don't address the flaws in the system, this is an option,'' said Peter Loge of The Justice Project in Washington, D.C.
The most recent blanket clemency came 16 years ago when New Mexico's governor commuted the death sentences of the state's five death row inmates. The gravity of Ryan's decision is much greater, with the fate of the nation's eighth-largest death row at stake.
The hearings are scheduled to last about an hour each.
Prosecutors demanded Monday that Ryan give each case individual consideration.
"Gov. Ryan owes no less to the victims and their families to give this case-by-case consideration,'' said Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine. "He owes no less to the citizens of this state. There should be no wholesale action taken by the governor.''
Defense attorneys are expected to attack the death penalty on two fronts: They will say Illinois' capital punishment system is so flawed it cannot be trusted, and they will try to poke holes in specific cases.
"A number of cases the board will hear rest upon unreliable evidence,'' said Thomas Geraghty, a law school professor at Northwestern University who is handling three cases.
Geraghty will claim, for example, that Ronald Kitchen confessed to the 1988 drug-related murders of five people only after he was beaten by detectives, whose tactics allegedly ranged from pummeling suspects to putting guns into their mouths and plastic bags over their heads.
There are still many questions about what will happen during and after the hearings. They are not mini-trials, where rules of evidence apply. Ryan can follow or ignore the board's recommendations, and make a decision based on one case or all.
In April, a panel commissioned by Ryan proposed dozens of reforms in the criminal justice system and said capital punishment should be abolished if reforms were not enacted. So far, the major ones have not.
Concerns about the death penalty have been an issue in the race for governor. Ryan, who has been plagued by scandal, is not seeking re-election.
Last month, Attorney General Jim Ryan, the Republican candidate for governor, sued the governor and the board, contending the hearings would be too short to be meaningful. The lawsuit was dismissed last week.