Activists hail death penalty ‘watershed’

BBC, Jan. 12, 2003

Opponents of the death penalty in the United States have welcomed the decision of the outgoing governor of Illinois to commute the sentences of the state’s 167 death row prisoners.

The head of the Washington-based National Coalition to abolish the Death Penalty, Steven Hawkins, described the move as a watershed moment and praised the governor’s courage and leadership.

The decision has prompted the Democrat Senator of Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, to call for a national review of the death penalty and a moratorium on all executions.

But the families of those killed in the cases under review expressed dismay and anger at the decision, which will leave the prisoners facing life sentences.

Governor George Ryan, a Republican who leaves office on Monday, told 156 inmates on death row that they no longer face dying by lethal injection.

“I’m going to sleep well tonight knowing that I made the right decision,” he said.

“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.


The country’s main anti-death penalty group applauded Governor Ryan’s move.

“This is a watershed moment, a turning point in the debate over capital punishment in the United States,” said Mr Hawkins, of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“Governor Ryan has taught us what leading truly looks like,” said Lawrence Marshall, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Chicago’s Northwestern University.

“This is greatness, my friends.”

Hard to take

But the reaction from families of victims of those who sentences have been commuted was very different.

“My son [William] is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done,” said Vern Fuling.

William Fuling was murdered in 1985, and now his killer will serve life imprisonment, instead of facing execution.

“This is like a mockery,” said Mr Fuling.

Ollie Dodds saw Madison Hobley, the man convicted of starting a fire which killed her daughter Johnnie, walk free on Friday.

“He doesn’t deserve to be out there,” she said.

Governor Ryan’s decision was hard to take, she added.

“I don’t know how he could do that.”

Meanwhile Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who takes over as Illinois governor on Monday, said Mr Ryan was wrong to commute all death sentences.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. “We’re talking about people who committed murder.”

‘Pressure lifted’

On Friday, Governor Ryan pardoned four death row inmates convicted of murder, all of whom said that confessions were beaten out of them by police in Chicago.

Leroy Orange, one of the men pardoned, was at Northwestern University Law School to hear Governor Ryan announce the blanket commutation of death sentences in the state.

Mr Orange, who had spent 19 years in prison after being convicted of fatal stabbings, spoke of his relief at being released.

“A lot of pressure was lifted from me that I didn’t realise was on me.”

A commission set up in Illinois by Governor Ryan found that the death sentences were given disproportionately to the poor, people from ethnic minorities and in cases in which informers’ evidence was used.

The results changed the governor’s own mind. In 1998, he had been elected to the post as a supporter of the death penalty.

He had halted executions three years ago, after courts found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977.



 Reinstated in 1976
 820 executions since then
 Nearly 3,700 on death row

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