On This Day

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Illinois Gov. George Ryan holds up a copy of the Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment during his keynote address at Harvard Law School, April 19, 2002.

On This Day: Gov. George Ryan Clears Illinois Death Row

January 11, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 11, 2003, Ill. Gov. George Ryan announced that he was commuting the sentences of 167 death row prisoners due to “the demon of error” in the capital punishment system.

Gov. Ryan Commutes Death Sentences

The Republican governor’s decision was prompted by numerous cases of Illinois death row inmates being exonerated. Reports of widespread prosecutorial misconduct were published in a five-piece series in the Chicago Tribune, which also featured a number of anti-death penalty editorials by writer Cornelia Grumman.

The death penalty controversy came to a head in 1999, when a group of journalism students at Northwestern University uncovered evidence indicating that inmate Anthony Porter—who had been just 50 hours from execution before a stay was granted—was wrongly convicted.

Ryan declared a moratorium on executions on Jan. 31, 2000 and formed a commission to investigate the capital punishment in Illinois. Commission member Scott Turow wrote in 2003 that the “system is an unguided ship” in which defendants are sentenced to death based less on the severity on their crime than by factors like race, class, geography, public emotion, and the lawyers and judges involved.

The commission made 85 recommendations to ensure that the capital punishment system was more just, including a reduction of capital offenses from 20 to five. It determined that “no system can or will be constructed which sufficiently guarantees that the death penalty will be applied without arbitrariness or error.”
When the Illinois legislature didn’t act on the commission’s recommendations, Ryan decided to take dramatic action. He first pardoned four death row inmates who had been tortured into giving confessions and then commuted the sentences of 163 others to life in prison. He made his announcement in a speech at Northwestern University on Jan. 11, just three days before he was to leave office.

“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error, error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die,” declared Ryan. “What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having? Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all Death Row inmates.”

Reactions to Ryan’s Decision

Ryan’s decision sparked an emotional debate over the death penalty. Steven Hawkins, head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, declared, “This is a watershed moment, a turning point in the debate over capital punishment in the United States.”

“Illinois' legal system is, momentarily anyway, free from the worst examples of justice soured by racism, incompetence and deceit,” said a USA Today editorial. “By clearing the decks, Illinois has a unique chance to reform its death-penalty system without worrying about those who have already been partly processed.”

Incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich was highly critical of Ryan’s decision, calling it “terrible” and a “gross injustice.” Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine said, “For the governor to grant pardons to these convicted murders is outrageous and unconscionable … they will be remembered among the most irresponsible decisions ever taken by a state's chief executive.”

Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan wrote that Ryan “committed an act at once arbitrary, capricious, immoral and anti-democratic. Pandering to an elite that is obsessed with the death penalty, Ryan abused his power and showed manifest contempt for the will of the people who elected him as a supporter of capital punishment.”

Key Player: Gov. George Ryan

George Ryan spent much of his life in Illinois politics, becoming secretary of state in 1991 and governor in 1999. “Throughout his long political career in Illinois—from county board member to state representative to lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and governor—Ryan showed a Huey Long-like willingness to push the limits of the powers of his office,” wrote Slate’s Chris Suellentrop. “Ryan's last-minute decision last week to clear out Illinois' death row by commuting the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison was simply a high-minded variant of an old pattern: using every tool available to him to achieve his aims.”

Ryan left office amid allegations of corruption; in 2006, he was convicted on fraud and racketeering charges and began serving six and a half year sentence in November 2007. Though his legacy has been tarnished by corruption, he remains a hero of the anti-death penalty movement.

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