Ill. Gov. Ryan to Empty Death Row

AP, Jan. 11, 2003
http://www.washingtonpost.com/
By Don Babwin, Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO –– Gov. George Ryan will commute the death sentences of all 156 inmates on Illinois’s death row, and he has sent letters to victims’ families warning them of the move, his spokesman said Saturday.

“He’s been talking about this for a few days, and in only a handful of cases was he considering, for a variety of reasons, not to include (them) in the commutations,” spokesman Dennis Culloton said.

“Ultimately, late yesterday, he came to the decision this was the only thing to do,” Culloton said.

The governor sent overnight letters to the families of murder victims telling them he would announce during a speech Saturday that he was commuting the death sentences to life in prison.

Ryan halted the state’s executions nearly three years ago after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted since the state resumed capital punishment in 1977 – a period during which only 12 other inmates were executed.

Vern Fueling, whose son William was shot and killed in 1985, was outraged that the killer, sentenced to death, would now 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.”

Ryan on Friday pardoned four other death row inmates, saying the men had been tortured by police into making false confessions.

A few hours later, Aaron Patterson ate his first steak dinner in 17 years, while Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange spent time with their families as free men.

Stanley Howard, the fourth man pardoned Friday, remained in prison. He had also been convicted of a separate crime for which he was still serving time.

“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 walked out of Cook County Jail looking a bit dazed.

“Right now it feels great,” said Orange, who was flanked by his two daughters.

Orange also had kind words and a message for Ryan.

“Thank you with all my heart and please do something for the remaining group on death row,” he said.

Patterson echoed that sentiment when he was released from the Pontiac prison.

“It’s very important that you all look into other guy’s cases on death row and in (the) prison population, there are more innocent people locked up,” Patterson said.

Ryan 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, which began when he declared a moratorium on executions in January 2000.

In his speech, Ryan condemned the state’s criminal justice system for sending innocent men to prison to be executed.

“The system has failed all four men,” Ryan said. “It has failed the people of this state.”

Ryan said Chicago police tortured Hobley, Howard, Patterson and Orange into confessing to murders they had not committed. Each of them was on death row for at least 12 years. Orange was on death row the longest, more than 17 years.

“We have evidence from four men, who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly provide,” Ryan said. “They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system. …

“I believe a manifest injustice has occurred.”

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.

Ryan spread the blame in his hour-long speech, calling the state’s criminal justice system “inaccurate, unjust and unable to separate the innocent from the guilty, and at times very racist.”

He blamed “rogue cops,” zealous prosecutors, incompetent defense lawyers and judges who rule on technicalities rather than on what is right.

He also criticized the Illinois Legislature for failing to enact his proposals to reform the death penalty system.

“What does it take? Now that we can say the number of wrongfully convicted men is 17, will that be enough?” Ryan asked.

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.

“Instead, they were ripped away from (the courts) by a man who is a pharmacist by training and a politician by trade,” he said.

Devine also criticized Ryan for pardoning the men and not consulting with his office before making his decision.

“Yes the system is broken and the governor broke it today,” Devine said.

Devine’s 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.

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.”

Hobley was convicted of murder and aggravated arson in the deaths of seven people, including his wife and infant son. He contended he made a false confession after he was beaten and nearly suffocated.

Patterson, 38, claims he was tortured into falsely confessing to murder after police threatened him with a gun, beat him and tried to suffocate him in 1986. He previously turned down a deal to admit guilt and drop his claim of police torture in exchange for freedom.

Orange, 52, was sentenced to die for taking part in the stabbing of his former girlfriend, her 10-year-old son and two others. The conviction came despite Orange’s description of torture and testimony that his half brother, Leonard Kidd, was the one who stabbed the victims. Kidd, also on death row, claims he too was tortured into confessing.

Howard, 40, was convicted of murder, armed robbery and rape, among other crimes. He claims he is innocent but confessed after he was handcuffed to a wall ring, beaten and choked by police in November 1984.

Associated Press Writers Maura Kelly, Nicole Ziegler Dizon, Eric Fidler and Nathaniel Hernandez contributed to this story.

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)