'Blanket commutation' empties Illinois death row
Incoming governor criticizes decision
From Jeff Flock
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced Saturday that he had commuted the sentences of all of the state's death row inmates and said he would "sleep well knowing I made the right decision."
He delivered his unprecedented speech at Northwestern University.
"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. 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 said.
Ryan's decision affects 156 inmates on death row in Illinois and 11 others who have been sentenced to death but who were not in the custody of the Department of Corrections because they are awaiting re-sentencing or trials in other cases. Some were also in other states' custody.
Ryan, a Republican who did not run for re-election in November, acknowledged during his speech that his actions would not be universally applauded. But he said he felt he had no choice but to strike a blow in "what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time."
Ryan, who leaves office Monday, pardoned four death row inmates Friday after determining they had been tortured into confessing crimes they did not commit.
Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange and Aaron Patterson were released after being pardoned. Another inmate, Stanley Howard, remained in prison because he had been convicted of a separate crime.
Inmates who have been convicted but not yet sentenced or who have been remanded for a new trial are not included in the commutations, a source in the governor's office said.
All but three of the commutations will reduce the inmates' sentences to life without parole; the remaining three will be reduced to 40 years to life to bring their sentences in line with co-defendants.
Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich, the Democrat who will replace Ryan, told CNN on Saturday that he disagreed with the governor's decision.
"I think a blanket anything is usually wrong," Blagojevich said. "We're talking about convicted murderers, and I think that is a mistake."
Capital punishment in Illinois came under the microscope after a group of journalism students at Northwestern began looking into the case of Anthony Porter in the late 1990s.
The students, working with their professor and a private investigator, found evidence that cleared Porter after 17 years on death row. Ryan vowed he would do whatever it took to "prevent another Anthony Porter."
Ultimately, 13 inmates who had been sentenced to death were exonerated, and Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in the state.
A panel Ryan appointed to examine capital punishment and review the cases of all death row inmates concluded last year that Illinois had applied capital punishment too often since it was re-established in the state in 1977.
Prosecutor: 'They've had their years in court'
Friday's pardons, coupled with early word that the governor was planning to issue commutations, sparked outrage from prosecutors and family members of victims.
"I believe that he is wiping his muddy shoes on the face of victims, using them as the doormat as he leaves his office," said Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons on CNN's NewsNight. "It says much more about George Ryan than it does about the death penalty."
Ollie Dodds, whose daughter died in the fire Hobley was convicted of setting and remains convinced he is responsible, said, "This brings back memories just like it happened."
Lyons accused Ryan of arrogantly substituting his own judgment for those of juries and courts that have imposed and upheld the death sentences, assuming that "none of us get it but him."
"Everybody has had not their day in court, they've had their years in court," Lyons said. "It's shameful that the victims of this state, in fact, have to not fear the courts, not the defense lawyers, not the defendants, but they have to fear their very own governor."
Ryan said he decided to pardon the four men rather than commute their sentences to life because he is convinced they did not commit the crimes that sent them to death row. All four men say they were tortured by police.
'Thank God this day has finally come'
Hobley, 42, who was convicted of killing seven people, including his wife and son, in a fire in 1987, said the pardon was a "dream come true."
"Thank God that this day has finally come," he said after being released from a state prison in Pontiac.
Orange, 52, who was condemned after being convicted of four murders in 1985, said he felt "alive" as he walked out of the Cook County Jail on Friday.
"I didn't believe it when I first found out about it," he said. "Thank you with all my heart and soul."
Patterson, 38, said he's "going to do all right" after walking out of the Pontiac prison. He was sentenced to die for the murder of a Chicago couple in 1986.
All four are part of a group of 10 death row prisoners who claim they were tortured into giving confessions under the direction of then-Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. He was fired after internal police investigators found systemic evidence of physical abuse of suspects.
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