Illinois commutes death sentences

CHICAGO – Illinois Governor George Ryan struck a blow against the death penalty worldwide when he pardoned four men on Illinois Death Row, Jan. 10, and commuted all 167 other death sentences to life imprisonment, Jan. 11. In three of those 167 cases, the term was shortened to 40 years. This was Ryan’s final act as governor.

Speaking at the DePaul University Law School here, Ryan stunned and gratified his audience by announcing pardons for four African-American men, who have maintained they were convicted on the basis of bogus confessions extracted by torture at the hands of former Chicago Police lieutenant Jon Burge. A special prosecutor is now investigating these cases.

The next day, Ryan addressed an overflow crowd at the Law School at Northwestern University, whose Center for Wrongful Convictions and Medill School of Journalism have done Herculean work documenting police and prosecutorial misconduct leading innocent people to Death Row.

When Ryan announced he was emptying death row completely, he received a standing ovation.

In his amazing one hour-plus speech, Ryan pointed out that since the death penalty was restored in Illinois, over half the men on death row, 13, were exonerated. Ryan, a former pharmacist, said he that if a druggist made that many mistakes he or she would “soon be out of business.”

Ryan, who entered the governor’s office four years ago as an ardent supporter of the death penalty, presented a careful, detailed review of the factors that led to his decision:

* Half of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois have been reversed.

* Thirty-three of the Death Row prisoners were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or suspended.

* More than two thirds of the prisoners on Death Row are African American, 35 of whom were convicted and condemned to die by all-white juries.

* 46 prisoners were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.

“I ask myself,” Ryan said, “how does that happen? How in God’s name does that happen?”

In January 2000, Ryan issued a moratorium and appointed a bipartisan commission to study the death penalty. The commission concluded that the system was seriously flawed, and there was a real danger of executing innocent people. They proposed 82 changes to prevent this from happening.

However, the Illinois General Assembly did not pass a single one of the commission’s recommendations, a fact that Ryan highlighted in his speech.

In it he concluded, “the Illinois death penalty is arbitrary and capricious – and therefore immoral. I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death. ... it has taken innocent men to a hairbreadth escape from their unjust execution.”

To family members of murder victims, with whom he had met, Ryan expressed sympathy and offered something more than revenge for their pain. “They pleaded with me to allow the state to kill an inmate ... to provide families with closure. But is that the purpose of capital punishment? To soothe the families? And is that what the families truly experience?” he asked.

He proposed the money spent on capital cases should go to a victim’s fund to pay for health care and other expenses families face. Ryan said his wife was not happy with his decision. A long-time family friend was brutally murdered and his killer also sat on death row.

Most prosecutors were quick in reacting with venomous anger. Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine, a Democrat, denied that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the criminal justice system until now, when Ryan “broke” it with his pardons and commutations. Devine was a high official in the office of then State’s Attorney (and now Chicago Mayor) Richard Daley when the Burge torture cases occurred.

Even those who support the moratorium looked for political cover on this decision. Newly elected Gov. Rod Blagojevich criticized Ryan, saying he did not believe in a “one size fits all” solution.

But the decision drew praise from human rights activists, both at home and abroad, and from government officials in a number of countries.

Walter Schwimmer, general secretary of the Council of Europe, the region’s number one human rights watchdog, said he “sincerely hoped” Ryan’s act was a “step toward the abolition of the death penalty in the whole United States.” He added that the death penalty had “no place in a civilized society.” The United States and Japan are the only industrialized countries in which the death penalty is still used.

Mexican President Vicente Fox telephoned Ryan “to express his profound recognition for the historic measure,” that commuted the sentences of three men of Mexican nationals, an issue before the International Court of Justice.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu spokesman called Ryan’s action “fantastic news,” adding that Tutu feels the death penalty “is vengeance, rather than justice.” Earlier Nelson Mandela had urged Ryan to issue a blanket commutation.

Jane Bohman told the World Ryan’s decisions “put the death penalty on the forefront of the state’s agenda.” Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty said that while the entire criminal justice system was in need of reform, “the death penalty must simply be ended.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org