CHICAGO–Recognizing that the Illinois death penalty system is “haunted by the demon of error,” Gov. George Ryan Jan. 11 commuted the sentences of all Illinois’ Death Row inmates, a move unprecedented in U.S. history. With two days left in his term, Gov. Ryan declared that no inmate will remain on death row and the state’s 167 condemned prisoners would now serve terms of life in prison without parole.

With two days left in his term, Gov. Ryan declared that no inmate will remain on death row and the state’s 167 condemned prisoners would now serve terms of life in prison without parole. With former death row inmates Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange–three Black men that he pardoned a day earlier–sitting in the audience, Gov. Ryan characterized the death penalty issue as “one of the great civil rights struggles of our time.”

The death penalty was handed out differently, explained Gov. Ryan, depending on where people lived in Illinois, who their prosecutor was, who their defense lawyer was, how poor they were and what race they were.


“Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious–and therefore immoral–I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” Gov. Ryan said, borrowing the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

“What the governor did today was great. The question is: Do you execute the innocent along with the guilty?” said Mr. Orange after Gov. Ryan’s decision. He then commented on his first day out of prison in 19 years. “I feel ecstatic. It feels great to wake up and look out the window and not see bars.”

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Orange–who had no adult criminal history–was a self-employed housepainter and maintenance man who lived with his wife and two children.

“It’s a tragic and great day in history,” said Rolando Cruz, who received a pardon from Gov. Ryan in December 2002 based on proof of his innocence. Mr. Cruz spent 17 years on death row. “I’m honored to be here and saddened that we have to be here because of overzealous lawyers and politicians.” Mr. Cruz emerged from his experience as an ardent advocate against the death penalty and wrongful convictions.

Mr. Patterson vowed to meet with Mayor Richard M. Daley, Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine, and the Illinois legislature to talk about Cortez Brown, Ronald Kitchen and others death row inmates that he believes are innocent.

“The United Nations should send a human rights commission to Chicago and inspect this system,” said Mr. Patterson.

Gov. Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 after 13 Death Row inmates were exonerated. Critics charge that he took up the issue in order to divert attention from a growing “licenses for bribes” scandal that took place when he was secretary of state. He then established a commission to “study and review the administration of the capital punishment process in Illinois to determine why that process has failed in the past, resulting in the imposition of death sentences upon innocent people.” What they found was startling.

“In almost every one of the exonerated 17, we not only have breakdowns in the system with police, prosecutors and judges, we have terrible cases of shabby defense lawyers,” said Gov. Ryan. “There is no way to sugarcoat it. There are defense attorneys that did not consult with their clients, did not investigate the case and were completely unqualified to handle complex death penalty cases.”

As a state legislator, Gov. Ryan voted in favor of the 1977 reinstatement of the death penalty in Illinois. When he entered the governor’s office, he remained a staunch supporter of capital punishment. Then came Anthony Porter, a man who was 48 hours from the execution chamber where the State of Illinois would have taken his life.

“I never intended to be an activist on this issue. I watched in surprise and amazement as freed death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. I’ll never forget that moment as he ran into the arms of Dave Protess.” Attorney Protess successfully fought to free Mr. Porter.

Fifty percent of Death Row convictions in recent years had been remanded, Gov. Ryan said. Attorneys who were later disbarred or had their law licenses suspended had represented at trial one-third of those sentenced to die. Thirty-five Black defendants were convicted to die by all-White juries.

Furthermore, Black Americans make up only 14 percent of the population of Illinois, but they comprise over 60 percent of Illinois prison and Death Row populations, according to the Illinois Coalition Against The Death Penalty.

“(Black and Latino) inmates also constitute 83 percent of those who have thus far been shown to be wrongfully convicted. (Blacks and Latinos), the numbers show, are far more likely than the White majority to be imprisoned, condemned to death and wrongfully convicted. Nationwide, prosecutors are more likely to request the death penalty and juries are more likely to impose it, when the defendant is Black or when the victim is White,” the Coalition said.

In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report about the impact of race in capital cases. “Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty,” the study said. “In 82 percent of the studies, race of victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty. É Those who murdered Whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered Blacks,” the GAO said.

“I realize it will draw ridicule, scorn and anger from any who oppose this decision. They will say I am usurping the decisions of judges and juries and state legislators. But the people of our state vested in me the power to act in the interest of justice. Even if the exercise of my power becomes my burden, I will bear it,” Gov. Ryan said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the number of innocent men freed from Death Row stands at 17. That is an absolute outrageous and unconscionable embarrassment. Since we reinstated the death penalty there are also 93 people where our criminal justice system imposed the most severe sanction and later rescinded the sentence or even released them from custody because they were innocent. How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that the system is broken?” the governor asked.

Reaction is swift

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine wasted no time in calling the governor’s decision “stunningly disrespectful.”

“I am sure that the governor expects that the acts of pardon and clemency announced in the last two days will be long remembered–and they will be. They will be remembered among the most irresponsible decisions ever taken by a state’s chief executive. In one stroke, he tossed aside the work of police, prosecutors, trial court judges, juries and appellate justices. The system is now indeed broken, and the governor walks away,” he said.

Thomas Ramos Jr. described Gov. Ryan’s decision as “stepping on the graves of my sister and her children.” Gloria Sepulveda and her two children were murdered in 1988.

“I think he made a jackass out of us,” said Lorraine Pedro, whose son was murdered 19 years ago. “What kind of message is he sending?”

Nevertheless, the decision to grant blanket clemency was also personal to the Ryan family. They were close friends of a murder victim who was buried alive in their hometown of Kankakee, Ill. Included in his Death Row commutations, the governor said, would be the man sentenced in that brutal 1987 murder.

“I do not come to this as a neophyte without having experienced a small bit of the bitter pill the survivors must swallow,” Gov. Ryan said. “But my responsibilities and obligations are more than my neighbors and my family. I represent all the people of Illinois and the decision that I make about our criminal justice system is felt not only here but, as I found out, the world over.”

Gov. Ryan reasoned that the time and resources spent sentencing a person to death would be better spent on the family of the murder victims. “Perhaps it would be less cruel if we sentenced the killers to life and used our resources to better serve victims,” said Gov. Ryan.

During his speech in Northwestern Law School Lincoln Hall, Gov. Ryan quoted from Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Bishop Desmond Tutu and, several times, from Abraham Lincoln. He compared Mr. Lincoln’s struggle to resolve the Civil War with the death penalty debate.

This historic commutation came a day after Gov. Ryan pardoned four Death Row inmates. They were among more than 60 suspects–including nearly a dozen on Death Row–who claimed former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge or his detectives at the Burnside Area Violent Crimes headquarters on the South Side tortured them to confess.

I shall be a friend

“Today, I shall be a friend to Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange,” Gov. Ryan said, naming the four prisoners, in his address at DePaul University law school in Chicago Jan 10. “Today, I am pardoning them of crimes for which they were wrongfully prosecuted and sentenced to die. The system has failed for all four men,” he said. “And it has failed the people of this state.”

The governor ordered three of the inmates–Patterson, Hobley and Orange–released from prison immediately. The fourth, Stanley Howard, will remain behind bars to complete a sentence for another crime.

Mr. Burge, a former lieutenant of Chicago’s Area II Violent Crimes Detective Unit, was fired from the Chicago Police Department on Feb. 10, 1993 after a case brought these accusations to light. In 1989, the decision in Wilson vs. City of Chicago revealed that Mr. Burge tortured suspects. Methods of torture included electric shocks, suffocation hoods, Russian roulette, burns, beatings and threats of death.

From 1973 to 1993 he received advances, promotions and support from political figures–such as former police Superintendent Leroy Martin and current Mayor Richard M. Daley–specifically attributed to his “expertise” in securing confessions and closing murder cases.

Despite being fired, Mr. Burge receives a full pension and has retired to Florida, while those he tortured languish in prison with serious questions about their guilt. No other officers involved in the torture have been punished, and several have been promoted.

“It’s time for Jon Burge to be brought to justice,” said activist Wallace “Gator” Bradley, director of United in Peace. “If nothing else, those who are still in prison because he tortured confessions out of them should all be freed.”

Gov. Ryan also pardoned Gary Dotson, who was convicted of a 1979 rape but later exonerated by DNA testing, and Miguel Castillo, who was released two years ago after spending more than 11 years in prison for murder when jail records showed he was in custody when the crime was committed.