Ryan to review Death Row cases

Governor may commute terms

By Ray Long and Steve Mills, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune news services contributed to this report

March 3, 2002

Gov. George Ryan will review the cases of the more than 160 Death Row inmates in Illinois and consider commuting their sentences, setting the stage for a dramatic follow-up to his 2-year-old moratorium on executions.

The governor's move invites confrontation with legislators who support the death penalty and with prosecutors throughout the state who, though grudgingly accepting his moratorium, would certainly challenge or oppose any wholesale resentencing of Death Row inmates.

"I'd rather have somebody angry than an innocent person killed," Ryan said Saturday from Oregon, where he spoke of his plans at a capital punishment conference Friday night.

Ryan said he would look at each case individually and did not have any particular inmate in mind. He also did not rule out commuting all of the death sentences. "That's not something that's out of the question. I'll consider that," he said.

The Illinois Constitution gives a governor broad latitude to grant reprieves and pardons as well as commute sentences, such as by converting a death sentence to life without parole.

Last week, Ryan's aides gave him folders on each Death Row inmate, anticipating the issue might arise before he leaves office in January 2003. But the governor said he would wait to take action until the commission he assigned to study the death penalty makes its reform recommendations, expected this spring.

"If government can't get this right, it ought not be in the business of passing such final, irreversible judgment," Ryan said at the conference Friday at the University of Oregon. Responding to questions afterward, Ryan said he believed "there probably are some people we can commute. Believe me, it's been a topic of discussion."

The Republican governor's concerns are rooted in Illinois' record: Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, 12 Death Row inmates have been executed while 13 were set free because of various flaws in the system.

Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor, said Ryan's latest statement is not surprising given the moratorium and the growing concerns the governor has expressed since.

"Once it's recognized, as it is recognized universally, then obviously we can't proceed and execute people under this broken system," Marshall said. "Obviously, we have to go back and assess these cases."

Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) said he understands Ryan's desire to commute problematic cases but that going any further, such as commuting every Death Row inmate, would be unfair to victims' families.

"The problem with a blanket commutation is that there will be some people who committed heinous, heinous crimes and clearly got fair trials," he said.

Dillard--who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Jim Edgar--said the legislature could do little to thwart Ryan if he wanted to grant a blanket commutation because the Constitution gives the governor so much power.

Rep. Thomas Johnson (R-West Chicago), who helped establish a House task force on the death penalty, also found no fault in Ryan's reviewing cases but suggested the governor should not try to get around state laws altogether.

"If the rationale is to do away [with the death penalty], I think that's an abuse of power," Johnson said.

In 1996, Edgar commuted the sentence of Guinevere Garcia to life in prison instead of carrying out her execution for killing her husband. She would have been the first woman in Illinois to be executed in six decades.

Only days before he left office in January 1991, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste commuted the death sentences of four men and all four women on Death Row, giving them terms of life in prison.

New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya similarly commuted the death sentences of five men in 1986, only weeks before he turned over the keys to his pro-death penalty successor. And in 1970, Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller spared the lives of 15 men--everyone on Death Row in that state.

The only time Ryan allowed the death penalty to be carried out, in 1999, he debated until the deadline whether to execute Andrew Kokoraleis for a brutal mutilation murder in DuPage County. Ten months later, he announced he was suspending all executions in Illinois.

In his new plan to review all Death Row cases, Ryan joins Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Moses Harrison II and Justice Thomas Kilbride in expressing additional doubts about death sentences that were handed down before the high court adopted a new set of rules last year.

Harrison and Kilbride have said in response to recent Death Row appeals that those inmates should have new trials to conform with the new rules.

Ryan's capital punishment commission already has taken a controversial vote to recommend abolishing the death penalty in Illinois, although there is a debate over whether such a move would exceed the panel's mission.

During last month's State of the State address, Ryan also chastised lawmakers for sending him two death penalty bills--one aimed at stemming gang activity and one inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--while so many questions about Illinois' death penalty process are under review.

In both cases, Ryan rejected the bills. "Because of our shameful record of sending innocent people to Death Row," Ryan told lawmakers last month, "it is my duty and my moral obligation to stand my ground. The more I see of the system, the more troubled I become."

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