Chicago -- Gov. George Ryan plans to block the execution of any Death Row inmate until a special panel is created to investigate the state's capital-punishment system, in effect imposing a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, a top aide said Saturday.
Ryan acted because of the state's troubling track record of exonerating more Death Row inmates than it has executed and in response to a recent Tribune investigation that exposed the death-penalty system's flaws, said his spokesman, Dennis Culloton. Since reinstating the death penalty in 1977, Illinois has cleared 13 Death Row inmates and put 12 to death.
The governor has the power to grant reprieves to Death Row inmates, an action that keeps the inmate under a death sentence but postpones the execution.
"You have a system right now . . . that's fraught with error and has innumerable opportunities for innocent people to be executed," Culloton told the Tribune. "He is determined not to make that mistake."
Ryan intends to announce the decision Monday.
Illinois would be the first state in the nation to halt all executions while it reviews its death-penalty procedures. The Nebraska legislature passed a moratorium last year only to have the governor veto it.
The move comes amid a federal investigation into a bribery scandal that occurred during Ryan's watch as Illinois secretary of state. The investigation has cut into Ryan's popularity among voters and has led even some within his party to believe he has been politically wounded.
Ryan's decision departs from the Republican Party's general hard-line support for capital punishment. Ryan is Illinois campaign chairman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presidential candidate whose state executes more inmates than any other in the country.
None of the 38 states with the death penalty has declared an official moratorium.
By suspending executions, Ryan essentially would be taking action that the Illinois legislature has rejected. Last year, the Illinois House approved a bill to impose a moratorium, but it failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Illinois' 13 exonerated Death Row inmates include men who served up to 18 years under a death sentence or came within days of execution. DNA tests cleared some of the inmates, while other cases collapsed after being reversed for new trials.
Dick Cunningham, an appellate attorney who represented Ronald Jones, one of the 13 inmates, called Ryan's decision a courageous one.
"I think also it is a recognition by the governor that this is what the people of the state of Illinois want," Cunningham said. "I think there's been a groundswell of support for a moratorium by the public, and I think that contributed heavily to the governor's decision."
A Tribune poll taken in March, one month after journalism students and a private investigator cleared Illinois Death Row inmate Anthony Porter, showed 54 percent of the state's voters favored a moratorium and 37 percent opposed such a measure. Porter once came within two days of execution but was cleared when the investigator persuaded the real killer to confess on videotape.
Despite the problems with the system, the Tribune poll found that Illinois voters continue to strongly support the death penalty in general.
Less than two weeks ago, Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against Steve Manning, a former Chicago police officer whose conviction and death sentence rested upon the word of a jailhouse informant and chronic liar. The Tribune exposed the holes in the prosecution's case in a five-part series, "The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois," published in November.
The Tribune investigated the nearly 300 death-penalty cases in Illinois since capital punishment's reinstatement and found that bias, error and incompetence riddle the death-penalty system.
The investigation found that at least 33 Death Row inmates had been represented at trial by an attorney who has been disbarred or suspended; at least 35 black Death Row inmates had been convicted or condemned by an all-white jury; and about half of the state's capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing.
The Tribune also found that prosecutors used testimony from jailhouse informants to convict or condemn at least 46 Death Row inmates. Such witnesses are widely considered among the least reliable in the criminal justice system.
Other inmates were convicted with hair analysis, a dubious form of forensic evidence linked to many wrongful-conviction cases nationally, the Tribune found.
Ryan still supports the death penalty but is deeply troubled by the prevalence of wrongful convictions and flawed prosecutions, Culloton said.
"He can't answer the central question: How do you prevent another Anthony Porter?" Culloton said. "The series helped crystallize it and put it all together."
The General Assembly and state Supreme Court already have created committees to study the death-penalty system and suggest reforms. Those committees have not yet finished their work.
Besides studying the system's shortcomings in general, Ryan's commission will be charged with investigating what went wrong in the 13 cases in which Illinois Death Row inmates were wrongly convicted.
"I hope this commission will truly and thoroughly and honestly examine the facts of these 13 cases," said Bill Ryan, chairman of the Illinois Moratorium Project. "We need an investigation of why half the cases are overturned. We need to investigate what's been going on."
Bill Ryan lobbied a House committee last week to pass a moratorium bill, but the lukewarm response made him lose hope that legislators would approve such a measure.
A source close to the governor said Ryan anticipates he will encounter criticism for his decision.
"He expects conservative Republicans will criticize him for this, and he thinks some state's attorneys may also be troubled by this," the source said.
Since becoming governor a year ago, Ryan has confronted only one pending execution. He decided not to stop the March 1999 lethal injection of Andrew Kokoraleis, a Villa Park man who had been condemned for a mutilation murder.
Ryan said he agonized over the decision and at one point even directed aides to type a statement granting Kokoraleis a three-month reprieve.
One year ago, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Moses Harrison II suggested that Ryan take the very action he now plans to announce.
Harrison, now the court's chief justice, said neither legislative nor judicial action was needed to block executions during an investigation of the system's flaws. All that was needed, Harrison said, was for the governor to exercise his power of reprieve.
That power allows a governor to stay executions indefinitely but does not lift a death sentence.
"I'm very pleased to hear that the governor is doing this," Harrison said Saturday night. "I had expressed my concern some time ago. . . . Nobody had taken any action along these lines. I'm very pleased and surprised."
Harrison has been the sole member of the Illinois Supreme Court to maintain that the state's death penalty should be held unconstitutional.
Culloton said the governor had not formulated any deadlines for his investigative commission's work or decided how the members would be chosen.
But the death penalty in Illinois is "a problem that's too big for case-by-case review," Culloton said, referring to the normal practice in which the governor reviews each case before execution. "It's clear that the system is broken."
Tribune staff writer Ray Long contributed
to this report.