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Sun Jan 12 09:03:49 MST 2003
CHICAGO (Jan. 11) - Denouncing the death penalty system as broken, the
governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of all the state's death row
inmates on Saturday, granting clemency to more than 150 people in a dramatic
move likely to fuel the national debate about capital punishment.
Gov. George Ryan -- a Republican who leaves office Monday after one term --
reduced the prisoners' sentences to a maximum of life in prison without
parole. Three will receive shorter sentences, meaning they could some day be
"How many more cases of wrongful convictions have to occur before we can all
agree that this system in Illinois is broken?" Ryan told a cheering audience
at Northwestern University Law School that included several wrongfully
convicted former death row inmates.
"I realize that my decision will draw ridicule, scorn and anger from many who
oppose this decision," he said, acknowledging the feelings of relatives of
crime victims, many of whom fought clemency. "I'm going to sleep well
tonight, knowing that I made the right decision," he said.
The move follows an examination of the state's capital punishment system
ordered nearly three years ago after investigations found 13 prisoners on
death row were innocent.
There are 156 inmates on death row, and another person has been sentenced to
death but is not yet in state custody.
Ryan said he was a staunch supporter of the death penalty when he took office
four years ago, but began to change his mind after watching a wrongfully
convicted man walk free -- only 48 hours before he was scheduled to be
In a speech quoting Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, Ryan called fixing
the death penalty "one of the great civil rights struggles of our time" and
lashed out at the state legislature for failing to pass reforms.
Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who takes over as governor on Monday, criticized
Ryan's decision. "A blanket anything is usually wrong," he said. "There is no
one-size-fits-all approach. We're talking about people who committed murder."
On Friday Ryan pardoned four men convicted of murder, saying confessions were
tortured out of them by Chicago police. One of the four used a paper clip to
scratch professions of innocence on a bench in an interrogation room even as
he was being forced to admit to a crime he did not commit, Ryan said.
Leroy Orange, one of the four men pardoned, told CNN he was very grateful to
Ryan, and looked forward to "having a positive influence" on his children and
grandchildren after 19 years in prison. He was convicted of fatal stabbings
Ryan's review prompted new questions about capital punishment in other
states, but none has gone as far as Illinois in reexamining the issue.
Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, called for a national review of the
death penalty and a moratorium on executions.
Illinois is one of 38 states with death penalty laws. The federal government
also has reinstated the death penalty.
Human rights group Amnesty International USA said Ryan's actions may empower
other states to end capital punishment.
"Gov. Ryan has set an important precedent for elected officials who question
the fairness of the death penalty but fear political repercussions,"
executive director William Schulz said in a statement.
A commission Ryan created to review the Illinois system found the poor were
at a disadvantage, too many crimes drew the death penalty and police abuse
and jailhouse informants too often played a role in capital convictions.
While opinion polls indicate most Americans still favor capital punishment,
support has been eroding and the American Bar Association has called for a
The United States is the only Western democracy in which the death penalty is
still used. The punishment has been abolished by its closest neighbors and
allies, who routinely denounce the practice in the United States.
>From 1976 when capital punishment was reinstated through the end of 2002
there have been 820 U.S. executions, 71 of them last year. There are nearly
3,700 men and women under death sentence in the United States currently.
01/11/03 17:37 ET
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