Ill. Governor Praised, Vilified
Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2003
By Robert E. Pierre
CHICAGO, Jan. 10 — A conservative Republican from a staid Midwestern state, outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan has become the unlikely poster boy for reforming capital punishment.
To the chagrin of prosecutors and glee of death penalty opponents, Ryan today pardoned four men who he said had been beaten into confessing to murders they did not commit. He chastised prosecutors, judges and legislators for looking the other way in the face of overwhelming evidence that the capital punishment system is broken.
With a second major death penalty speech scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Ryan has hinted strongly that he will commute many of the death sentences of more than 150 inmates on Illinois death row. “The system has proved itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust, unable to separate the innocent from the guilty and, at times, racist,” Ryan said at a news conference here at DePaul University.
Ryan has been hailed by death penalty opponents around the world for his actions — he imposed the nation’s first moratorium on executions three years ago. But critics say the governor is merely trying to deflect attention from his political troubles. Prosecutors contend that Ryan, a pharmacist, is failing crime victims.
“For the governor to grant pardons to these convicted murderers is outrageous and unconscionable,” State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine said. “By his actions today, the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve.”
From the beginning of his term to the very end — he leaves office Monday — Ryan has been mired in controversy. A bribery scandal from his time as secretary of state has ensnared many of his closest allies and is threatening to implicate Ryan directly. Republicans blame his troubles for their loss in the last election of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature — the first time in three decades that the GOP has not controlled at least one. And incoming governor Rod Blagojevich (D) is upset that Ryan allegedly continues to hand out high-paying, public jobs to political cronies.
The controversies aside, fixing the death penalty has become a mission for Ryan. There was the moratorium, a blue-ribbon panel he appointed that studied the issue for two years, and, in recent months, unprecedented clemency hearings for all 159 inmates on Illinois death row. Ryan will announce on Saturday how many on death row he will spare, indicating today he will possibly commute the sentences of some to life or allow others out on time served.
Ryan admits that the path he has chosen is foreign. Like many new governors, he came into office four years ago pledging to invest in schools, fix roads and improve transit systems. “The death penalty was nowhere on the radar,” he said.
That changed when studies showed that since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977, 12 death row inmates had been executed but 13 had been exonerated. Ryan pledged to stop executions and fix the system. Today, he pardoned four men — Leroy Orange, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard — who were among dozens who said they were tortured by members of the Chicago Police Department’s violent-crimes detective unit, which former lieutenant Jon Burge ran for more than two decades. Each man said they confessed to murders to stop abuse that included near-suffocation and severe beatings. Burge was fired in 1993 after a police inquiry found he had tortured suspects. He has denied doing anything wrong.
“If I hadn’t reviewed the case, I wouldn’t believe it myself,” Ryan said.
Ryan has never been seen as a trailblazer. He had friends on both sides of the political aisle, and never appeared to be driven by a social or political agenda. He chose instead to deal with problems as they arose. “He is not an ideologue,” said former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He’s practical.”
Families of the men Ryan pardoned cried today as they began making plans to pick them up from prison. Activist Jesse Jackson, who attended Ryan’s speech, lauded him as a “man of conscience,” but said more needs to be done.
“We need a system of checks and balances, not just a good man every now and then,” Jackson said.
Others were not pleased. One man who said he was a state employee announced as he left DePaul after Ryan’s speech: “I hope he gets indicted next week,” referring to the scandal involving bribes paid for driver’s licenses. Prosecutors have said Ryan was present when an aide allegedly ordered state employees to destroy key evidence in the case.
Many families of the other victims of death row inmates said they are expecting a sleepless night. Saturday morning, they will receive an express mail package from Ryan telling them whether he has given clemency to the convicted killer of their loved ones.