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Death Row Sentences Commuted to 'Life' in Illinois Jan 2003

In a press conference today, (Jan 2003),at North Western University, Illinois, retiring Grosvernor George Ryan announced that Death Row inmates in Illinois have all had their sentences commuted to 'life'. Clemency hearings will be heard for all of them in the near future. Four years ago George Ryan was voted into office as Grosvernor of Illinois. "I was a believer in the death penalty" he said today. Shortly after his arrival he set up a panel to investigate the death penalty system in Illinois which has resulted in the dramatic changes that are occurring.

What are the stats?
The death sentence was re-instated in Illinois back in 1977. Last year, 2002, a 1000 murders were committed in the state of Illinois, of which only 2% were sentenced to death row. The actions of prosecutors, defenders, and everyone throughout the criminal justice system involved in cases of murder, came under question during the commission's investigation. The inequality in prosecuting and defending came under initial attack in an introductory speech by Larry Sullivan. As a result of the investigation 17 death row prisoners have now been pardoned and released. Several of them were at the press conference today. Four had only just been pardoned yesterday.
But it is not only the injustices occurring with the death row prisoners which the investigation has highlighted. There were a further 33 people who had been charged with murder, (although not put on death row), whose cases were proven to be 'incorrect' and they have been subsequently released. They were also a further 93 cases whose convictions have been turned over.

"The system in Illinois is broken"
In a frank and open speech Ryan went on to name names and quote extensively from the commission's findings. He commented that the 102 prosecutors elected locally were under pressure from their own communities & politicians. One legal observer noted that the use of the death penalty in Illinois was  "......as freakish and arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightening." "Did you know, "Ryan stated, "that you are five times more likely to be convicted of murder with the death sentence in the rural communities around Cook County, than you are in Cook County. Five times more likely."  Ryan also went onto talk about the Ford Height Murders (convicted 1979, released 1996). How was it that the original, incorrectly sentenced people, were put on death row, but when the actual murderers were convicted, they were only given a an 80 year life sentence. Why was there that imbalance ?

"There is more than enough blame to go around"
One of the most damning statements was concerning the law enforcement agencies who conducted the initial murder investigations before they even got to trial. Some of the 17 released so far had been 'tortured' into making confessions. One victim had even scratched the word 'innocence' into the bench with a paper clip whilst being  forced to confess to a murder he didn't commit.

"Repair or Repeal"
Grosvernor Ryan's speech was long and expansive. It covered, not only the potential ramifications this decision could have for the American legal system, but also how this would effect the world view and opinion of the USA abroad. He mentioned a phone call he had received this week from the former South African premier, Nelson Mandela. Mr Mandela had said "The US sets the example for justice and fairness for the world." Arch Bishop Tu Tu had also sent a letter to Grosvernor Ryan offering his comments on Illinois' decision.  

Personal bitterness
Understandably there are a lot of the victims of the families of, what could be considered, 'genuine death row imates', who are going to feel particularly aggrieved at the fact that the person who killed their family member is no longer going to be executed by the state. Ryan himself is has also been touched by this. He movingly went on to tell the story of a current death row inmate, (whose sentence will now be commuted to life), had buried alive Ryan's friend and next door neighbour in his home town. "Mercy spells richer fruits than strict justice" quoted Ryan of Abe Lincoln.

The beginning of real justice     
The commission into the investigation of the death penalty system has looked at and reviewed all aspects of the death row system in the state of Illinois. About time. If you saw Grosvernor Ryan's speech, you realised you were watching a turning point in the US Criminal Justice System. If you didn't see it - go to your TV now. Find a news channel. Watch it. Read about it. The retiring grosvernor of Illinois has listened, acted, and championed the calls for justice and fairness in Illinois' death row system.
Ryan said at the end of his momentous speech, "I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing that I've made the right decision". So will the 156 inmates on death row.

Okay - why did I do that piece? Well, I was totally moved and amazed that such a man in public office, whose opinions were set in stone when he became gosvernor, could be turned around like that. Not only turned around, but acted on in such a manner to completely change the future of the death row system in his state.

There is an enormous amount of controversy surrounding this announcement, and his speech, and the measure being taken are far too much to be encapsulated into one article. For your own piece of mind I suggest you do follow this up and become fully acquainted with all the issues involved.
It was interesting to note that Fox News did air the speech live, but less than 30 minutes later it never even made the news headlines and was not mentioned at all in that news broadcast. Who am I to suggest that there may be a lot of political pressure in the background in both directions to support/go against this action and decision in Illinois? But there obviously is.

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