Illinois governor commutes all of state's death sentences

`Demon of error' noted in changing most of 156 to life without parole

January 12, 2003|By Monica Davey and Steve Mills | Monica Davey and Steve Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - Declaring the state's capital punishment system "haunted by the demon of error," Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of every inmate on Illinois' death row yesterday.

With two days left as governor, Ryan declared that most of the state's 156 condemned prisoners will serve terms of life in prison without parole. Three inmates whose cases Ryan said raised particular fairness concerns, were granted 40-year prison terms, allowing the possibility of release in several years. And 12 other people - who had once been sentenced to death row but are awaiting new sentencings - will receive life in prison without parole.

"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," Ryan said, borrowing the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. "I won't stand for it. ... I had to act."

Ryan, who placed a moratorium on executions in 2000 after 13 death row inmates were exonerated, said his three-year examination of the state's death penalty system had only raised new alarms. The death penalty was handed out differently, he said, depending on where people lived in Illinois, who their prosecutor was, who their lawyer was, how poor they were and what race they were.

"The facts that I have seen in reviewing every one of these cases ... raised questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole," Ryan told a cheering audience at Northwestern University's law school that included six exonerated former death row inmates. "The Illinois capital punishment system is broken. It has taken innocent men to a hair's breadth escape from their unjust execution."

Ryan's blanket commutation, which came a day after he pardoned four other death row inmates, caps a remarkable ideological journey. The Republican entered the governor's office a staunch supporter of capital punishment. As a state legislator in the 1970s, he voted in favor of reinstating the death penalty in Illinois.

When he departs the office tomorrow, still hounded by a corruption scandal, Ryan will leave behind a vacant death row.

Though other governors have taken sweeping clemency actions before him, experts said Ryan's decision compares in scale only with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 overturning of the death penalty, which reduced hundreds of death sentences to life.

The most recent blanket clemency came in 1986 when Toney Anaya, the governor of New Mexico, commuted the death sentences of the state's five death row inmates, according to the Associated Press.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who issued the country's only other moratorium on state executions last year, has no plans to pardon or commute the sentences of any death row inmate before leaving office Wednesday, spokesman Chuck Porcari told the Associated Press.

But the extraordinary move prompted outrage and anguish from prosecutors and some murder victims' families, who received urgent letters from Ryan yesterday morning telling them what he was about to do. "I am not prepared to take the risk that we may execute an innocent person," Ryan wrote in the letters sent by overnight mail.

Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine called the decision "stunningly disrespectful to the hundreds of families who lost their loved ones to these death row murderers."

With his choice, Devine said, Ryan had "once again ripped open the emotional scabs of these grieving families."

Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons said Ryan is "in hate with" justice itself.

It was offensive for him to compare himself to President Lincoln in a speech Friday and say, "`I am a friend to these men on death row,'" Lyons said. "My reply is, `Yes, Your Excellency, you certainly are. Now go home before you make any more friends who are murdering the good people of Illinois.'"

Some relatives and friends of murder victims said they believed Ryan was trying to shift attention away from the corruption scandal that has tainted his administration and led to criminal charges against aides.

"I just think it's political tactics," said Helen Sophie Rajca of Bolingbrook, Ill., whose two brothers were shot and stabbed to death in 1979.

Monica Davey and Steve Mills write for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

In Perspective

Maryland: A study of the death penalty looks at race and geography but fails to consider the risk of executing innocent people. [Page 1c]

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.