Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan Commutes Death Sentences

January 11, 2003

Four years ago I was sworn in at the 39th Governor of Illinois. That was just four short years ago – that’s when I was a firm believer in the American system of justice and the death penalty. I believed that the ultimate penalty for the taking of a life was administrated in a just and fair manner.

Today – three days before I end my term as Governor, I stand before you to explain my frustrations and deep concerns about both the administration and the penalty of death. It is fitting that we are gathered here today at Northwestern University with the students, teachers, lawyers and investigators who first shed light on the sorrowful condition of Illinois’ death penalty system. Professors Larry Marshall, Dave Protess and their students along with investigators Paul Ciolino have gone above and beyond the call. They freed the falsely accused, Ford Heights Four. They saved Anthony Porter's life and they fought for Rolondo Cruz and Alex Fernandez.

And before I go on, I'd like to take just a minute to talk about Larry and Dave. Never have I met anyone with more passion but with a fiercer sense of justice than these two men. They have a vision for what the justice system can be and they're an inspiration. And I want to say thanks, again, especially thanks to them for their hard work and dedication and their long hours and their deep seeded belief in what we're doing here today.

I think it's more than proper also that we're together with dedicated people like Andrea Lyon, who I had the opportunity to be with yesterday, who's labored long in the frontlines of trying capital cases for many years and who is now devoting her passion to creating an innocence center at DePaul University.Andrea Lyon — there she is. Andrea Lyon saved Madison Hobley's life.

Together, she spared the life and secured the freedom of 17 men who were wrongfully convicted and rotting in the condemned units of our state's prison. Andrea, what you have achieved is of the highest calling. Thank you, thank you very much for all you've done.

Yes, I believe it's right that if I'm here with you, where in a manner of speaking that my journey from a staunch supporter of a capital punishment system to a reformer all began. Since the beginning of our journey, my thoughts and feelings about the death penalty have changed many, many times. And I realize that over the course of my reviews, I had said that I would not do blanket commutations. I've also said that it was on the front burner. It was on the back burner. But I've always said that it was an option. And it was there. And it was an option that I wanted to keep on the table and have to consider.

During my time in public office, I have always reserved my right to be in the best interest of public policy, to change my mind when I thought it was necessary to do so. And I have done it on a lot of occasions and certainly this is one of those occasions. But I must confess that the debate with myself, I think, has really been the toughest concerning the death penalty. And I suppose the reason that the death penalty has been the toughest is because it's so final. It is. It's absolutely final. And it's the only public policy that determines who lives and dies. And you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, but that's the public policy. It's life and death. It is the only issue that attracts most of the legal minds all across the country. And I can tell you that I have received more advice on this issue than any other policy issue that I've dealt with in my 35 years of public service. I have kept an open mind on both sides of the issue of commutation for life or for death.

I have read, listened to and discussed issues with the families of the victims as well as the families of the condemned. And I know that any decision that I'll make today will not be accepted by one side or the other. I know that my decision will be just that, my decision based on all of the facts that I could gather over the past three years. I may never be comfortable with the decision that I make in the final decision, but I'll know in my heart that I did my very best to do the right thing.

Now, having said that I want to share with you a program or a story that I want to tell you about. As you all know, you have heard me say I grew up in Kankakee, Illinois. And Kankakee is not far from Chicago, but it's still a thousand miles away in terms of a lot of things. It is still a small midwestern town, a place where people tend to know each other. And I had a great neighbor and his name was Steve Small. He and his wife would look after our young children when Laura Lynn and I were out of town. I got to tell you that wasn't for the faint of heart because we had six kids and five of them were under the age of three. But he was a bright young man who helped run the family business. And he and his wife had three children of their own. And Laura Lynn was especially close because we knew that we were there for each other.

One September midnight, Steve received a call at his home. And he had brought an old Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kankakee and he was in the process of restoring it to its original form. And they said that there had been as a break in at that house. And so, he had to leave his house to go sign a complaint with the police. And when he got to the garage and opened the door, there was a man standing there with a gun and they put the gun on him and threw him in the trunk of the car. And they took him out and buried him in a very shallow grave alive and he died before police could find him.

His killer eventually led police to where Steve's body was buried. The young man's name was Danny Edward. He was also from my hometown of Kankakee. And he now sits on death row. I know his family. I know his brother. I know his mother and father. I share this story with you so that you know that I don't come to this as a neophyte without having expected and experienced the small bit of the bitter pill the survivors of murder must swallow.

But my responsibilities and obligations are more than my neighbors and my family. I represent all of 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.

As I said the other day, I received a call from Nelson Mandela. I was at Manny's having a corn beef sandwich as a matter of fact. And I had a chat with Nelson Mandela for about 20 minutes. But the message that he basically delivered was that the United States sets the example for justice and fairness for the rest of the world. And today, the United States is not in league with most of our allies when it comes to the death penalty. We're not in league with Europe or South Africa or Canada or Mexico, most South and Central American countries. These countries have rejected the death penalty. We're partners in death with several third world countries. As you all know, even Russia has now called a moratorium.

The death penalty has been abolished in 12 states and in none of those states has the homicide rate increased. Now, here's a good number for you to remember, in Illinois last year we had about 1,000 murders and only two percent were sentenced to death. I want to know, where is the fairness and the equality in that? The death penalty in Illinois is not imposed fairly or uniformly because of the absence of standards for 102 counties in this state, state attorneys who must decide whether to request a death sentence. Should geography be a factor in determining who gets the death sentence? I don't think it should. But in Illinois it makes a difference. You are five times more likely to get a death sentence for the first-degree murder in the rural areas of the state than you are here in Cook County. Five times more. Where's the fairness in that? Where is the fairness in the justice system? Where is the proportionality?

You know the most — Reverend Desmond Tutu wrote to me this week stating that — he said and I quote —- "To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge. It's not justice." He says "justice allows for mercy and clemency and compassion. These virtues are not weaknesses."

"In fact, the most blurring weakness is that no matter how efficient and how fair the death penalty may seem in theory, in actual practice, it's primarily inflicted upon the weak, the poor, the ignorant and against racial minorities." Now that was a quote from former California Governor Pat Brown. He wrote a book and his daughter sent it to me a couple months ago and the book was titled "Public Justice and Private Mercy." And he wrote that — nearly 50 years ago he wrote that. Fifty years ago. Now what's changed in 50 years? Not much. Why not? I don't know. I don't have the answer.

I never intended to be an activist on this issue, needless to say. But soon after taking office, I watched in surprise and amazement as the free death row inmate Anthony Porter was released from jail. As a free man, he ran into Northwestern University professor, David Protest. Where's David? Where are you, David? David's right here.

David, it was a memory I'll never forget, seeing little Anthony Porter run out and jump in your arms as a free man out of prison. He poured his heart and soul; David did, in providing Porter's innocence with his journalism students.

Anthony Porter was 48 hours away from being wheeled into the execution chamber where the state would kill him.

It would be also antiseptic that most of us wouldn't have even paused for a second except that Anthony Porter was innocent. He was innocent for the double murder for which he had been condemned by the State of Illinois to die.

And after Mr. Porter's cause, there was a report by "Chicago Tribune" reporter, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong, that documented the systemic failures of our capital punishment system and you've all read it. I can't imagine it. Half, if you will, of the nearly 300 capital cases in Illinois have been reversed for a new trial or for some resentencing.

Now, how many of you people here today that are professionals can get by and call your life a success if you're only 50 percent successful? Certainly, I can't as a pharmacist. I don't think doctors can. I don't know how the Justice Department can think they've a system that work when 50 percent of the cases are sent back for fixing.

Thirty-three percent of the death row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who had later been disbarred or at some point, suspended from the practice of law.

Of the more than 160 death row inmates, 35 were African-American defendants, who had been convicted or condemned to die not by a jury of their peers, but by all white juries.

More than two-thirds of the inmates on death row were African-Americans.

Forty-six inmates were convicted on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants.

I can recall looking at these cases and the information from the Mills/Armstrong series and I ask myself and my staff, how does that happen? How in God's name does that happen? In America, how does it happen?

I've been asking this question for nearly three years and so far nobody's answered the question. Even as I stand here today nobody's answered the question.

So then over the next few months there were three more exonerated men freed because their sentence sentences hinged on a jailhouse informant or some new DNA technology that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were innocent.

Thirteen men found innocent and 12 executed. And as I reported yesterday, there's not a doubt in my mind that the number of innocent men freed from our death row stands at 17 now because yesterday we pardoned Aaron Patterson, and Madison Hobley and Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange.

And if you really want to know what's outrageous and unconscionable, outrageous and unconscionable, it's 17 exonerated death row inmates is nothing short of a catastrophic failure. But to then 13 and now 17 men, it is just the beginning of our sad arithmetic in prosecuting murder cases in this state. During the time that we've had capital punishment in Illinois, there were at least 33 other people wrongfully convicted on murder charges and exonerated, 33. You don't read about those people because they didn't make death row. Since we reinstated the death penalty, there are also 93 people, 93, for our criminal justice to impose the most severe sanction and then rescinded the sentence or even release the prisoners from custody because they were innocent — 93.

How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?

Throughout this process, I have heard many different points of view expressed and I've had the opportunity to review all of the cases involving the inmates on death row. I have conducted private group hearings, one in Springfield and one in Chicago, with the surviving of the members of the homicide victims. Everyone in that room, who wanted to speak, had the opportunity to do so. Some wanted to express their grief while others wanted to express their anger, but I took it all in.

My commission, myself, my staff had been reviewing each and every case for three years. But I redoubled my effort to review each case personally in order to represent and to respond to the concerns of prosecutors and victims families. This individual review also naturally resulted in a collective examination of our entire death penalty system.

I also had a meeting with a group of people who are less often heard from and who are not as popular with the media. The family members of death row inmates have a special challenge to face and I spent an afternoon with those family members at a church here in Chicago on the south side. And at that meeting, I heard a different kind of pain expressed. Many of these families live with the twin pain of knowing not only that in some cases their family members were responsible for inflicting a terrible trauma on another family but also the pain of knowing that society has called for another killing. These parents, siblings and children are not to blame for the crime that has been committed. If these innocent have to stand with their loved ones and they have to stand with their loved ones wondering whether they're going to be killed by the state. And as Mr. Mandela told me, they're also branded and scarred for the rest of their life because of the awful crime that's been committed by their family member.

Others were even more tormented by the fact that their loved one was another victim, but that their loved one was truly innocent of the crime for which they had been sentenced to die.

It was at that meeting that I looked into the face of Claude Lee, another Kankakee citizen, Claude Lee, who's the father of Eric Lee, who was convicted of killing a Kankakee police officer. His name was Anthony Samfay. And a few years ago, it happened. It was a traumatic moment, once again, for my hometown of Kankakee. A brave officer, part of that thin blue line that protects all of us from being struck down by want and violence. And if you will, kill a police officer, you have absolutely no respect for the law nor do you have any respect for man nor his laws nor any respect for God.

I have known the Lee family for many years in Kankakee. There's does not appear to be a whole lot of question about the guilt of Eric Lee. He killed that officer. However, I can say now that after our review there is also not much question that Eric is and has been for some time very seriously ill. With the history of treatment for mental illness going back a number of years.

The crime he committed was a terrible crime, killing a police officer. And society demands that the highest penalty be paid.

But I had to ask myself, could I send another man's son to death under the deeply flawed system of capital punishment that we have in Illinois, a troubled young man with the history of mental illness? Could I rely on the system of justice that we have in this state not to make another horrible mistake? Could I rely on a fair sentencing program? Could I rely on a fair sentencing program in the United States?

In the United States, the overwhelming majority of those executed are psychotic, alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally unstable. And they're frequently raised in an impoverished and abusive environment.

Seldom are people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses, but even more seldom are they executed.

To quote Pat Brown again, he said — and I quote — "Society has both the right and the moral duty to protect itself against its enemies. This natural and prehistoric axiom has never successfully been refuted. If by ordered death, society is really protected and our homes and institutions guarded, then even the most extreme of all penalties can be justified."

"Beyond its honor and incredibility, it has neither protected the innocent nor destroyed the killers. Public sanction killing has cheapened human life and dignity without the redeeming grace that comes from justice delivered evenly, swiftly and humanely."

At stake throughout the clemency process was whether some, all or none of these inmates on death row could have their sentences commuted from death to life, without the possibility of parole. And one of the things that was discussed with family members was life without parole was seen as a life filled with perks and benefits.

Some inmates on death row don't want a sentence of life without parole. Danny Edwards, from Kankakee, wrote me a letter. Said: "If you can't pardon me, don't condemn me to a life in prison. Leave me on death row. Don't do me any favors," he said, because he didn't want to face the prospect of a life in prison without parole. They'll be confined in a cell about six feet by 12 feet. Usually double-bunked. Our prisons have no air conditioning, except at one of our supermax facilities were inmates are kept in their cell 24 hours a day, and in summer months, the temperature gets as high as 100 degrees. It's a stark and dreary existence, and they can think about their crimes for the rest of their life. Life without parole has even, at times, been described by prosecutors as a fate worse than death.

Yesterday, I mentioned a lawsuit in Livingston County, where a judge ruled the State Corrections Department couldn't force-feed two corrections inmates who were on a hunger strike. The judge ruled that suicide by hunger strike was not an irrational action by the inmates, given what their future holds — life in a six by 12 cell.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it's unconstitutional, and cruel and unusual punishment to execute the mentally retarded. It's now the law of this land. How many people have we already executed who were mentally retarded and are now dead and buried? Although we now know that they have been killed by the state unconstitutionally and illegally. Is that fair? Is that right?

This court decision was last spring. The General Assembly of the state of Illinois has failed to pass any measure defining what constitutes mental retardation. We are a rudderless ship, because they failed to act.

This was even after the Illinois Supreme Court also told lawmakers that it was their job, and it must be done.

I started with this issue because I was and still am concerned about innocence, but once I studied, I pondered what had become of our justice system, I came to care above all about fairness. Fairness is fundamental to the American system of justice and to our way of life.

The facts that I've seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole.

In a system that's working, if it was working, so many errors in determining whether someone was guilty in the first place, how fairly and accurately was it determining which guilty defendants deserved to live and which deserved to die? And what effect was race having? What effect was poverty having?

And almost every one of the exonerated 17, we'd not only had breakdowns with police and prosecutors and judges, we have terrible cases of shabby defense lawyers. There is no way to sugarcoat what goes on. There are defense attorneys that did not consult with their clients. They didn't investigate the cases that they had, and they were completely unqualified to handle complex death penalty cases.They often don't put much effort into fighting a death sentence, and if your life is on the line, your lawyer certainly ought to be working a little extra hard to make sure that your life is saved. And as I've said before, there's more than enough blame to go around about our failures with this system.

I had more questions in Illinois.

I have learned that we have 102 decision-makers. Each of them are politically elected. Each beholding to the demands of their community, and in some cases, to the media or especially vocal victims' families. And I ask you, in cases that have the attention of the media and the public, are decisions to seek the death penalty more likely to occur? What standards are these prosecutors using?

Some people have assailed my power to commute sentences. A power that literally hundreds of legal scholars from across the country have defended. The prosecutors in Illinois have the ultimate commutation power, a power that is exercised every day. They decide who's going to be the subject to the death penalty, who will get a plea deal, or even who may get a complete pass on prosecution. Every day in this state that happens. They make these — these decisions, and I ask about what standards do they make these decisions on? We don't know. They're not public.They were more than 1,000 murders last year in Illinois, and there is no doubt that all murders are cruel and they're wrong, yet less than 2 percent of those murder defendants are going to receive the death penalty. That means that more than 98 percent of victims' families don't get and will not receive whatever satisfaction can be derived from the execution of the murderer. Moreover, if you look at the cases as I have done, both individually and collectively, a killing within the same circumstances might get you 40 years in one county and the death sentence in another county. I have also seen co- defendants who are equally guilty, where one gets sentenced to a term of years, while another ends up on death row.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart has said that the imposition of the death penalty on defendants in this country is as freakish and arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning. In my case-by-case review, I found three cases that struck me as particularly unfair, troublesome and deserving of some form of commutation.

In one of them, the murder victims's family had publicly and privately urged me to act more aggressively than I will today. In the cases of Montell Johnson and Mario Flores and William Franklin. I am today commuting their sentence to a term of 40 years to fairly bring their sentences into line with their co- defendants and to reflect the other extraordinary circumstances of each of these cases.

It's an example of what can happen. For years, the criminal justice system defended and upheld the imposition of the death penalty for the 17 exonerated inmates from Illinois. Yet when the real killers are charged, prosecutors have often sought sentences of less than death. In the Ford Heights Four case, Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams fought the death sentences imposed upon them for 18 years before they were exonerated, and later Cook County prosecutors sought life in prison for the real killers and sentenced them to 80 years.

What a difference murder for which the Ford Heights Four were sentenced to die. Why is that less worthy of the death penalty 20 years later with a new set of defendants?

I don't understand the arbitrariness of the system. We've come very close to having our state Supreme Court rule the death penalty statute unconstitutional. It was a statute that I helped pass in 1977. Former State Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon wrote to me just recently that it was only happenstance that our statute was not struck down by the state's high court. When he joined the bench in 1980, three other justices had already said Illinois's death penalty was unconstitutional, but they got cold feet when a case came along to revisit the question. One judge wrote that he wanted to wait and see if the Supreme Court of the United States would rule on the constitutionality of the new Illinois law. Another said that precedent required him to follow the old state Supreme Court ruling with which he had disagreed.

Even a pharmacist knows that that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We wouldn't have a death penalty today and we wouldn't all be struggling with the issue if these votes had been different. Pretty arbitrary.

Several years ago, we enacted our death penalty statute, a fellow by the name of Girvies Davis was executed. Justice Simon wrote to me that he was executed because this unconstitutional aspect of Illinois law, the wide latitude that each Illinois state's attorney has to determine what cases qualify for the death penalty. One state's attorney decided not to seek the death sentence when Davis' first sentencing was sent back to the trial court for a new sentencing hearing. Instead, he was going to ask for a life sentence, the state's attorney.

But in the interim, a new state's attorney was elected or appointed, somehow became the new state's attorney. And he wanted the death penalty. And he was successful in charging the death penalty, and he was successful in getting the death penalty against Girvies Davis, and Girvies Davis was executed.

I ask you, how fair is that?

After the flaws of our death penalty system were exposed, the Supreme Court of Illinois began to reform its rules and to improve the procedures for trying capital cases. It changed the rule to require that states attorneys give advance notice to defendants that they plan to seek the death penalty, before trial, instead of after conviction. The Supreme Court also enacted new discovery rules designed to prevent trials by ambush and to allow for better investigation of cases from the very beginning.

Shouldn't that mean that you were tried or sentenced before these important essential reforms were enacted to correct a clearly flawed system that you ought to get a new trial or sentencing that will be more fair or just as accurate? This issue has divided the Supreme Court. Some saying yes, but a majority saying no. These justices have a lifetime of experience with the criminal justice system. And it concerns me that these great minds so strenuously differ on an issue of such importance, especially where life or death hangs in the balance.

What are we to make of the studies that showed that more than 50 percent of Illinois jurors couldn't understand the confusing and obscure sentencing instructions that were being used? What effect did that problem have on the trustworthiness of death sentences? A review of the cases shows that often even the lawyers and the judges are confused about the instruction, let alone the jurors sitting in judgment. Cases still come before the Supreme Court with arguments about whether the jury instructions were proper.

And as I have said, I've spent a good deal of time reviewing these death row cases. My staff, many of whom are lawyers, spent busy days and many sleepless nights answering questions, providing me with information and giving me a lot of great advice.

And it became very clear to me that whatever decision I made I would be criticized for. And it also became very clear to me that it was impossible to make reliable choices about whether our capital punishment system had really done its job.

As I came closer to my decision, I knew that I was going to have to face the question of whether I believed so completely in the choice I wanted to make that I could face the prospect of even commuting the death sentence of Danny Edwards, a man who had killed a close family friend of mine. My wife was even angry and disappointed at my decision, like many of the other families are going to be.

I was struck by the anger of the families of murder victims. To a family, they talked about closure. They pleaded with me to allow the state to kill an inmate in its name to provide the families with closure. But is that the purpose of capital punishment? Is it to soothe the families? And is that truly the families' experience?

I can't imagine losing a family member to murder, nor can I imagine spending every waking day for 20 years with a single-minded focus to execute the killer. The system of death in Illinois is so unsure that it's not unusual for cases to take 20 years before they are resolved. Thank God. Because if it moved any faster, then Anthony Porter, the Ford Heights Four, Ronald Jones, Madison Hobley and all the other innocent men that we've exonerated might already be dead and buried.

But it is cruel and unusual punishment for family members to go through this pain, this legal limbo for 20 years. Perhaps it would be less cruel if we sentenced the killers to life in a six by 12 cell and used our resources to better serve victims.

My heart ached when I heard one grandmother who lost children in an arson fire. She said that she couldn't afford proper grave markers for her grandchildren who died. I question, why can't the state help families provide a proper burial?

Another crime victim came to our family meeting. He believed an inmate sent to death row for another crime also shot and paralyzed him. The inmate, he says, gets free medicine, free health care, while the victim that he shot struggles to pay his substantial medical bills, and as a result, he has forgone getting proper medical care to alleviate the physical pain that he endures.

What kinds of victim services are we providing? Are all of our resources geared toward providing this notion of closure by an eye for an eye? Closure by execution instead of tending to the physical and social needs of family victims? And what kind of values are we instilling in those wounded families and in the young people? You know what Gandhi said about an eye for an eye. He said, that leaves the whole world blind.

President Lincoln often talked of binding up wounds as he sought to preserve the union. He said: "We're not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

I have had to consider not only the horrible nature of the crimes that put men on death row in the first place, the terrible suffering family members of the victims, the despair of the family members of the inmates, but I have had also to watch as frustration members of the Illinois General Assembly failed to pass even one substantive death penalty reform in the state! Not one! People like Tom Sullivan and gr

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