Chicago, Oct. 22--(AP) For nearly two weeks, the details of Illinois' most gruesome murders have been replayed for the public in a marathon set of clemency hearings that death penalty opponents now believe may have backfired and hurt their cause.

The hearings, which are being held for nearly every inmate on Illinois' death row, were set in motion by Republican Gov. George Ryan, who suspended all executions nearly three years ago because of flaws in the criminal justice system.

But the procedural flaws discussed at the hearings have been overwhelmed by the litany of bloody horrors, and the governor himself has become the target of bitter attacks by the relatives of murder victims. "The pain and passion of these families is deafening," said Larry Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who has been a driving force in exposing problems with Illinois' death penalty. "It's so overwhelming that people are forgetting all the problems that got us here."

So overwhelming, in fact, that Chicago's two major newspapers have urged Ryan to stop the hearings. "Halt the anguish, Gov. Ryan," implored a Chicago Tribune editorial. "Ryan's hearings cruel and unusual," headlined a Chicago Sun-Times editorial. In the space of a week, the public heard once again about:

  • A couple who shot and killed a woman, cut her nearly full-term baby from her womb, and killed two of her other children.
  • Two brothers who beat a sleeping couple to death with baseball bats.
  • A father who tortured his mute, severely retarded stepdaughter for five years until she died.
  • A man who killed a couple after telling them to have their last kiss.
  • A man who took eight women to remote locations and stripped, bound and murdered them.
  • "I can't imagine the public has heard such a parade of horrors combined into such a short time period in American history," said John Gorman, a spokesman for the Cook County State's Attorney's office.

    Defense lawyers requested the hearings after Ryan said last spring that he would review every death penalty case before he leaves office in January. Last month, Ryan even suggested that he might grant blanket clemency to all 159 people on death row. But the governor backed away from those comments this week.

    Defense attorneys had hoped the hearings would focus on such problems as police brutality and unreliable jailhouse snitches. But it was clear almost from the beginning that the emphasis would be on the crimes themselves and the families they devastated. During one of the early hearings, Marshall spoke about corrupt judges, retarded defendants allowed to represent themselves and police officers not above torturing confessions out of suspects.

    Then it was the prosecutor's turn. Paul Tsukuno took the parole board back to the night in 1983 when Reginald and Jerry Mahaffey broke into a Chicago home and attacked a sleeping couple. He told of Dean Pueschel being hit with a baseball bat with such force that parts of his skull "looked like a crushed eggshell." He recounted how Jo Ellen Pueschel "died hearing her son say, 'Just lay down.'"

    Family members have transformed the hearing rooms into photo galleries of the dead. They have pointed to the infants in the audience who would never know their grandfathers, the sons and daughters who grew up without parents. "You could not sit in that room without feeling human and without feeling how vulnerable it is to be human," said Arvin Boddie, a board member who was removed after criticizing the hearings and defense attorneys. Craig Findley, another panel member, said: "It's like going to six wakes a day for 2 1/2 weeks."

    Defense attorneys and death penalty opponents acknowledged they could not overcome the words of the family members. "I do think that this is one of those occasions where there are some important pressing arguments about due process, fairness," said Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "But it's hard to put that in the forefront in the face of what these families are saying." Marshall said the same phenomenon happens at trial: "Raw pain can obscure any meaningful assessment of the facts and the evidence."

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