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Illinois Governor Commutes All Death Sentences

On January 11, 2003 Governor George Ryan ensured himself a place in the history of criminal justice reform by commuting the death sentences of 167 people. It was the most sweeping act of its kind by a governor in U.S. history.

Most of the 164 men and 3 women who had their sentences commuted will now serve life sentences without the possibility of parole. Three of them will receive sentences of 40 years in prison, making them eligible for parole in several years. Ryan said their cases had raised special fairness concerns. Ryan went even farther the day before and pardoned four men on death row who had falsely confessed to their crimes after being tortured by police.

"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of errorerror in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," said Ryan speaking to an audience at Northwestern University. "What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having? Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates."

Ryan placed a moratorium on all state executions in 2000 citing the fact that since 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 13 death row prisoners had been proven innocentone more than had been executed. A subsequent three year study of the state's death penalty system only heightened concerns. The death penalty, said Ryan, was meted out differently depending on a person's race, how poor they were, where they lived, and who the defense lawyers and prosecutors were.

A special commission appointed by Ryan to study the state's death penalty concluded in April 2002 that problems with the system were so pervasive that it should be abolished. But barring abolition, the commission recommended 85 reforms necessary to ensure that the death penalty was meted out "fairly." The Illinois legislature, however, refused to enact any of the reforms.

"They absolutely and systematically refused, in the case of the legislature, to institute any reforms...," said Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, national board member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

Ryan said he felt he had no choice but to act. However, many family members and friends of murder victims were outraged by the commutations, as were some prosecutors. Ryan, who had previously stated he was leaning away from blanket commutations, said, "They have a right to be angry. I have probably misled them, certainly not intentionally .... I apologize to those people."

In a letter written to the victims' families before the commutations were issued, the Governor wrote, "I am not prepared to take the risk that we may execute an innocent person."

Ryan said even his wife would probably be angry at him. In 1987 a close family friend was murdered in their hometown of Kankakee by being buried alive. The accused murderer was among those whose death sentence Ryan commuted.

"I do not come to this as a neophyte without having experienced a small bit of the bitter pill the survivors must swallow," 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."

Sources: The Columbus Dispatch, New Haven Register, The Associated Press, Socialist Worker, USA Today

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