CHICAGO (AP) -- Gov. George Ryan said Saturday he was clearing the state's death row and commuting the sentences of all 156 inmates who had been condemned to die. He warned victims' families by overnight letter that the move was coming.
"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," Ryan said in prepared remarks Saturday.
"Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates," he said.
Ryan, who leaves office on Monday, had halted all executions in the state nearly three years earlier after courts found that 13 Illinois death row inmates had been wrongly convicted since capital punishment resumed in 1977 - a period when 12 other inmates were executed.
He said studies since that moratorium was issued had only raised more questions about the how the death penalty was imposed. He cited problems with trials, sentencing, the appeals process and the state's "spectacular failure" to reform the system.
"Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious - and therefore immoral - I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," he said. He said he sympathized with the families of the murder victims.
Other governors have issued similar moratoriums and commutations, but nothing on the scale of what Ryan planned.
"The only other thing that would match what he's done is in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty and 600 death sentences were reduced to life with that decision," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The most recent blanket clemency came in 1986 when the governor of New Mexico commuted the death sentences of the state's five death row inmates.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendenning, who last year issued a moratorium on executions in his state, has no plans to pardon or commute the sentences of any death row inmate before leaving office Wednesday, spokesman Chuck Porcari said.
Ryan chose the speech Saturday at Northwestern University - where journalism students investigating Illinois death row cases helped exonerate some inmates - to publicly announce that he was commuting the 156 death sentences.
All but three of those sentences will go to life in prison without the possibility of parole, governor's spokesman Dennis Culloton said. The three will get shorter sentences and could eventually be released from prison, though none will be out immediately.
Vern Fueling, whose son William was shot and killed in 1985 by a man now on death row, was outraged that the killer would be allowed to live.
"My son is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done," Fueling said. "This is like a mockery."
Incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, also criticized Ryan's action, calling blanket clemency "a big mistake." Each case should be reviewed individually, Blagojevich said. "You're talking about people who've committed murder."
Ryan on Friday went a step farther in four other death row cases, issuing pardons for four men he said had been tortured by police into making false confessions.
A few hours later, Aaron Patterson, 38, walked out of prison a free man and ate his first steak dinner in 17 years, while Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange spent time with their families.
Stanley Howard, 40, the fourth man pardoned Friday, remained in prison. He had also been convicted of a separate crime for which he was still serving time. All four had been convicted in murders.
"It's a dream come true, finally. Thank God that this day has finally come," Hobley, 42, said Friday as he left the Pontiac Correctional Center.
Orange, 52, walked out of Cook County Jail looking a bit dazed with his two daughters by his side.
"Thank you with all my heart and please do something for the remaining group on death row," he said, addressing Ryan.
The Republican governor announced the pardons Friday at DePaul University in the first of two speeches capping his three-year campaign to reform the state's capital punishment system.
Patterson's mother, Jo Ann, said she was overwhelmed when she heard the news.
"I don't believe in miracles but this is a miracle," she said.
Reaction to the pardons from death penalty supporters was swift.
Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine said the future of the four men should have been decided by the courts. His office is trying determine if the pardons could be challenged, but Devine said the clemency powers for an Illinois governor are among the broadest in the country.
"Instead, they were ripped away from (the courts) by a man who is a pharmacist by training and a politician by trade," he said. "Yes, the system is broken, and the governor broke it today."
Ollie Dodds, whose 34-year-old daughter, Johnnie Dodds, died in an apartment fire that Hobley was convicted of setting, said she was saddened by Ryan's decision.
"I don't know how he could do it. It's a hurting thing to hear him say something like that," she said, adding that she still believes Hobley is responsible.
"He doesn't deserve to be out there."
George Ryan might be able to do this as a lame-duck move... but it doesn't prevent the fact that he, in my mind, helped in the licenses-for-bribes scandal in the state that led to a family's death.
My feeling has always been that this "moratorium" is a metaphor to allay his guilt knowing that he had part in killing a family.
I'm not arguing over death penalty here -- I'm arguing that George Ryan is a full-fleged schmuck, and a huge political disappointment here in Illinois.
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This is yet another example of why it should be examined whether to allow officials to make lame duck decisions. If he felt so strongly on the matter, make the decision before your last few days in office. Instead, a blanket policy ties the hands of all his successors.
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So, George Ryan wants a legacy and gets one by effectively wiping out the death penalty in Illinois...at least for now.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is doing the same thing, but instead of the morally-challenging death penalty suspension, it's the economy-crippling Kyoto Accord that's going to be ratified. God, I hate stupid politians.
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From what I've heard, some of these guys only confessed to the crimes under extreme duress, like torture, so I definitely don't want to send them to the chair. But shouldn't we have new trials, instead of some huge action by the Executive?
Originally posted by PalpatineWFrom what I've heard, some of these guys only confessed to the crimes under extreme duress, like torture, so I definitely don't want to send them to the chair. But shouldn't we have new trials, instead of some huge action by the Executive?
it's a good idea in theory, but the lawyers would say it would be Double Jepordy, as they were already tried AND convicted AND served time already...
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I agree. I believe that most of the reprieved will now serve life in prison, but there's a chance that three or so could possibly be released. Even if you're against the death penalty, I don't think allowed a convicted murderer out on the streets is the correct remedy.
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The ones who are being released were pardoned, not commuted, and in all of their cases it looks like they were not guilty of the crimes for which they were committed. Either their confessions were tortured out of them in Area 2, or in Gary Dotson's case the woman who put him away admitted she was lying.
I am pro-death penalty myself, however I can understand ONE of the arguments that the anti-death crowd uses- and that is "What if an innocent man is put to death?" On one hand, I can say "acceptable risk." But what if it were me? Someone I cared about? Now on this basis I do not believe that the death penalty should be done away with, but rather made more strict. Someone who is completely notorious, massivley sick, and in a case where there is no evidence in the world that would change the verdict (a la Manson)- these people should be canditates for the death penalty. Back on subject, however- Gov. Ryan's actions are somewhat noble in result, however, I see them as problematic. Clinton did something very similar on his way out, and I did not like it then either. It smacks of abuse of power. The reason we have a checks and balances system is so that our elected officials DO have to put up with the consequences of their actions, to prevent them from from doing things like this to make themselves look good, or compassionate, on their way out, when a large number of people might not think it is such a good idea. Something of this magnitude DESERVES debate, and Ryan bypassed it totally. Seems cowardly to me. If he really believed what he did was the best thing, he should have stood and fought for it when he was not on his way out. Now it just seems like a "something to remember me by" act simply to put himself in the history books, and everyone else has to deal with the consequences. Coward.
Not that I'm defending Ryan's governing in anyway, but this wasn't completely a last minute "remember me" ploy. He has been asking the legislature to change the system for capital punishement for a couple years (when they started finding out just how many people were innocent and on Death Row, 17 out of 173, so far). They didn't do anything, so he reacted. That being said, he probably should've given the legislature an ultimatum last year and tell them "change it or I'll commute." Considering he didn't do that and decided to go all dramatic, then that makes it a "remember me" ploy. I agree with Pool-Boy on the strictness level on the Death Penalty.