This week, scores of state’s attorneys from Illinois’ 102 counties are attending a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, sponsored by the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation. The purpose of the conference is to hone their prosecutorial skills in capital cases, which means cases in which the death penalty is a possible outcome. The expenses for the trip, which may be as much as a thousand dollars per attendee, are being paid out of the budget of Illinois Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan.

This might seem like a normal thing for a state attorney general to do, except that nothing that has anything to do with prosecution of capital cases in Illinois is ever normal.. The outgoing governor, also a Republican and coincidentally named George Ryan, gained national fame by putting a moratorium on the death penalty in the state in January 2000, after no fewer than 13, mostly African-American, death row prisoners were saved from execution when they were exonerated by new evidence.

Gov. Ryan appointed a special bipartisan commission to look into the death penalty, which concluded that vast reforms are needed if Illinois is not to put innocent people to death. (In an informal vote, a majority of the commission members expressed a desire that the death penalty be abolished). Opponents of the death penalty and of abuses of the criminal justice system expressed outrage at Jim Ryan’s promotion of the Las Vegas conference, which they see as a training ground for prosecutorial dirty tricks.

As it happens, Jim Ryan, who was DuPage County (suburbs West of Chicago) prosecutor before he became Attorney General, is the Republican candidate for governor. His Democratic opponent is Congressman Rod Blagojevich from Chicago’s North side. Both Jim Ryan and Blagojevich say they would maintain George Ryan’s death penalty moratorium “until reforms are enacted,” but both have also said they are in favor of the death penalty.

But the death penalty issue is a dangerous one for Jim Ryan. While he was the DuPage county prosecutor, there was a particularly ugly case of prosecutorial abuse against two young Hispanic men, Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez. The two were falsely accused of murdering a young girl and spent years in jail, Cruz on death row. When it was revealed that prosecutors, subordinates of Ryan, had fudged information to incriminate them, the anti-death penalty movement in Illinois got a jump start.

Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine and former state’s attorney and present Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, have also been accused of presiding over frame-up operations involving torture, extorted false confessions, concealment of exculpatory evidence, and death sentences meted out to innocent people. In fact, a special prosecutor has been appointed to look into Chicago cases that occurred in the 1980s under the direction of former Chicago police lieutenant Jon Burge.

Governor Ryan’s death penalty moratorium has come to have high visibility and popular support in Illinois, despite the fact that the governor himself has a very low approval rating due to a bribery scandal and anger over heavy-handed cuts in the social service budget. Thus, if the Blagojevich campaign can portray Jim Ryan as insensitive to the plight of people who have been falsely accused and condemned, it is an opportunity to arouse the anger of the African-American and Latino constituencies and could move Democratic voter turnout in November.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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