Illinois governor pardons 4 inmates on death row

Penal system `unjust,' Ryan says as he weighs clemency for 156 others

January 11, 2003|By Steve Mills and Monica Davey | Steve Mills and Monica Davey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO -- Saying that he wanted to correct a "manifest injustice," Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned four death row inmates yesterday and laid the groundwork for an unprecedented act of clemency by a U.S. governor.

Although aides said Ryan was still weighing whether to commute the death sentences of the remaining 156 prisoners on death row, the Republican governor appeared poised to do so.

He plans to announce his decision today, two days before he leaves office and three years after he declared a moratorium on the state's executions after 13 condemned men were exonerated.

With tearful members of the four pardoned men's families seated before him, Ryan criticized every element of the system -- police officers, prosecutors and the courts -- for convicting Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange.

In an impassioned, sometimes angry speech, Ryan -- hounded by unrelated scandals that have led to indictments of his top aides -- pronounced the state's entire capital punishment system "wildly inaccurate, unjust and unable to separate the innocent from the guilty."

Ryan described a "pattern and practice of torture" from electric shock to near-suffocation used by former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his detectives in a South Side police headquarters in the 1980s to induce confessions from the four men and others.

"The system has failed all four men, and it has failed the people of this state," Ryan said in his speech at DePaul University's law school in Chicago. "Here we have four more men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit.

"They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system," Ryan said. "These cases call out for someone to act. They call out for justice. They cry out for reform."

Each of the men spent at least 12 years on death row. Aside from Howard, who was convicted of a separate crime and must complete that sentence, the men were released from custody last night and picked up by thrilled relatives, friends and lawyers.

"I'm so happy the governor thinks the same way we do about the justice system," said JoAnn Patterson, who left the governor's speech to drive to a southern Illinois prison to pick up her son. He had always proclaimed his innocence in the murders of Vincent and Rafaela Sanchez, who were found stabbed to death in their South Chicago home in April 1986.

Dressed in a new black suit and accompanied by the wife who had never known him as a free man, Hobley walked out of Pontiac Correctional Center yesterday afternoon and said he would forgive the people who put him on death row. But Hobley also called Illinois' capital punishment system "irreparable" and said he would never forget the torture he endured at the hands of police.

Plans were made for lavish first-night meals. Hobley expected to eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, Caesar salad and cake.

Orange, sentenced to die for taking part in the stabbing of his former girlfriend, her 10-year-old son and two others, had one word to describe his feelings as he left Cook County Jail.

"Alive," Orange told a waiting crowd of reporters and photographers as he left with his two grown daughters. He said his immediate plan was to reconnect with his family and get a job. Orange added he wanted to thank Ryan "with all of my heart."

But criticism of Ryan's move came swiftly from supporters of the death penalty and from the victims of the crimes for which the four pardoned men had been convicted.

Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine called the pardons "outrageous and unconscionable."

"By his actions today the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve," Devine said.

"I'm very perturbed," said Michael Jointer, whose sister was fatally stabbed in 1984 along with her son and two others. Jointer said he doesn't believe that Orange was not involved in the killings. "This is an injustice to me and the rest of my family."

Orange's conviction came despite his description of torture and testimony that his half-brother, Leonard Kidd, was the one who stabbed the victims. Kidd, also on death row, claims he, too, was tortured into confessing.

Steve Mills and Monica Davey write for the Chicago Tribune.

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