January 12, 2003
Governor Empties Illinois Death Row
By JODI WILGOREN
HICAGO, Jan. 11 — Condemning the capital punishment system as fundamentally flawed and unfair, Gov. George Ryan commuted all Illinois death sentences today to prison terms of life or less, the largest such emptying of death row in history.
In one sweep, Governor Ryan, a Republican, spared the lives of 163 men and 4 women who have served a collective 2,000 years for the murders of more than 250 people. His bold move was seen as the most significant statement questioning capital punishment since the Supreme Court struck down states' old death penalty laws in 1972. It seemed sure to secure Mr. Ryan's legacy as a leading critic of state-sponsored executions even as he faces possible indictment in a corruption scandal that stopped him from seeking re-election.
"The facts that I have seen in reviewing each and 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," Governor Ryan said this afternoon. "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."
Mr. Ryan acted just 48 hours before the end of his term and one day after he took the extraordinary step of pardoning four condemned men outright. Three of those inmates spent their first afternoon of freedom attending the governor's speech at Northwestern University Law School, whose Center on Wrongful Convictions led the call for blanket clemency.
In the hourlong speech, Governor Ryan quoted Desmond Tutu, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Supreme Court Justices Potter Stewart and Harry A. Blackmun.
The governor said that even his wife, Lura Lynn, was angry and disappointed at his decision. But after several months of intense lobbying by both sides and exhaustive review of case files, Governor Ryan said, he was left with Justice Blackmun's famous declaration in a 1994 dissent, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."
Governor Ryan told the sympathetic crowd: "The Legislature couldn't reform it, lawmakers won't repeal it, and I won't stand for it — I must act. Because our three-year study has found only more questions about the fairness of the sentencing, because of the spectacular failure to reform the system, because we have seen justice delayed for countless death row inmates with potentially meritorious claims, because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious — and therefore immoral."
The decision brought elation and relief on death rows at Pontiac and Menard correctional centers, and among wives, mothers and children who had spent years fighting fate. But it left prosecutors, politicians and relatives of murder victims seething with anguish and frustration.
"We have the death penalty every day because this kills us inside," said Dawn Pueschel, whose brother and sister-in-law were killed in their apartment on Chicago's North Side in 1983. "What they've done to all these victims' families, it's like we were murdered again, our family members, that's how bad it is."
Jon Van Schaik, a Chicago firefighter whose brother Roger was one of two police officers fatally shot on a South Side street in 1979, said he hoped Governor Ryan would soon faces charges in the corruption scandal and then "spend the rest of his life in prison."
"How can one person have all of this authority and power?" Mr. Van Schaik asked. "It's making a mockery and a farce out of our legal system and our prison system."
Governors have broad, virtually unchecked constitutional powers for pardons and clemency, and Mr. Ryan is at least the fourth to empty death row as he departs office, though the scale of his action overshadows the 22 men Gov. Lee Cruce of Oklahoma spared in 1915, the 15 death sentences Gov. Winthrop L Rockefeller of Arkansas commuted in 1970 and the five clemency petitions Gov. Toney Anaya of New Mexico granted in 1986.
The Democratic governor-elect, Rod Blagojevich, said this morning that the mass commutation was "a big mistake," and Richard A. Devine, the Cook County state's attorney, said he would review legal options for undoing it, though he was not optimistic.
"What he has done has really undermined the system of criminal justice tremendously," Mr. Devine said. "The families of the victims were led to believe that decisions would be based on a careful review of the evidence in each case. That obviously did not happen."
Experts said Mr. Ryan's action would reverberate nationally, especially since it comes after an Illinois commission conducted the most extensive study of capital punishment since the penalty was re-established in most states in the mid-1970's. But Governor Ryan was in an unusual position to act because his political career has been extinguished by a federal investigation showing that, while he was the state's secretary of state, government employees were deployed illegally on campaigns and contracts were traded for contributions.
The governor's decision today "says you have to start all over again if you want the death penalty," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, comparing it to the 1972 Supreme Court decision. "I don't know how many times we're going to go through a revolution like this before we conclude that there's no way for humans to make these irrevocable and infallible judgments."
Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said, "I don't know whether this will be an immediate precedent for mass change, but it is a historic landmark that will long be looked at."
Governor Ryan, a pharmacist who was among the Illinois legislators who voted in 1977 to revive the death penalty, acknowledged in his speech the unlikelihood of his crusade. But when he found himself at the helm of a state that had conducted 12 executions and exonerated 13 death row inmates, one of whom came within 48 hours of the electric chair, Mr. Ryan called a moratorium on capital punishment.
Much of Mr. Ryan's talk today criticized state lawmakers, who three times rejected the changes his commission had proposed to overhaul capital punishment. He also painted a grim portrait of prison life, lacking air-conditioning or freedom, noting that some of the convicted killers had asked him not to lift their death sentences.
Sergio Molina, spokesman for the state corrections system, said the 167 death row prisoners would be transferred within a week to the general prison population, where they will have bunkmates and will be allowed to eat lunch and dinner in dining halls rather than in their cells.
Pamela Safford, whose son, Cortez Brown, has spent a decade on death row, said she was stunned speechless as she heard Governor Ryan utter the words she had been waiting for. "I never thought this would happen," she said. "I just thank God my son's life has been spared. It shouldn't be an eye for an eye."
Mr. Ryan also granted further relief to three of the death row inmates, cutting their sentences to 40 years to match those of their co-defendants.
Mr. Ryan, in what will likely be his last public appearance as governor, said he understood that the blanket commutation "will draw ridicule, scorn and anger."
"Even if the exercise of my power becomes my burden, I'll bear it, because our Constitution compels it," he said. "I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing I made the right decision."