Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan on Friday pardoned four death row inmates who say they were tortured into confessing, and today will grant clemency to many of the state's approximately 160 condemned inmates, perhaps all of them, sources close to the governor said.
Friday's order was the largest freeing of death row inmates in a single day since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Three of the four men -- Madison Hobley, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange -- were released by evening. The fourth, Stanley Howard, was to be moved off death row but remain incarcerated for other crimes -- noncapital offenses that Ryan and others believe Howard may not have committed.
"Here we have four men who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die by the state for crimes the courts should have seen they did not commit," Ryan said in a noontime speech. "We have evidence from four men who did not know each other, all getting beaten and tortured and convicted on the basis of the confessions they allegedly made. They are perfect examples of what is so terribly broken about our system."
"It's a dream come true -- finally," Hobley, 42, said a few hours later as he left Pontiac Correctional Center. Hobley spent 15 years in prison for an arson in which he saved a toddler but lost his wife and infant son. The blaze killed seven people. "Thank God that this day has finally come."
Prosecutors and the families of many murder victims were incensed by Friday's announcement.
"For the governor to grant pardons to these convicted murderers is outrageous and unconscionable," Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine said. "By his actions today, the governor has breached faith with the memory of the dead victims, their families and the people he was elected to serve."
There have been only a handful of pardons from death rows since 1976, with most coming well after the inmates were legally exonerated and freed.
Ryan, who leaves office Monday after one term plagued by scandals from his tenure as secretary of state, called a moratorium on executions in 2000, after the 13th death row inmate had been freed since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Illinois had freed more condemned prisoners than it had executed, having put to death 12.
Ryan said in his Friday speech at DePaul University that he remains gravely concerned about the ability of the state's death penalty system to execute only the guilty, and hinted that more innocent people were still facing death. He is set to give another speech today at Northwestern University -- where students helped exonerate several of the 13 freed inmates -- and is expected to grant numerous clemencies, thereby changing death sentences to terms of life in prison.
Ryan has said with increasing frequency in recent months that, while most of the condemned are guilty of the crimes that put them on death row, they were convicted by a system so dysfunctional that it might be impossible to cull the innocent from the guilty. Although Ryan, 68, and his staff have gone over the cases of every condemned inmate -- and held clemency hearings last autumn for 140 of them -- such statements, many believe, have suggested Ryan will commute all or most death sentences.
"You can't say the system is broken, then allow some people convicted by it to remain on death row," said one person close to the proceedings, who asked not to be named.
Twenty death row inmates did not file petitions for clemency, fearing that if they were granted clemency their claims of innocence would be forgotten and they would spend their lives in prison for crimes they say they didn't commit. However, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law filed petitions on their behalf.
As Ryan spoke Friday, his office was mailing letters to the families of the victims in capital cases as well as to the families of the condemned -- letters intended to notify them of Ryan's decision before his speech at 1 p.m. CST today.
In the last 50 years, the largest mass commutation was 15 by outgoing Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1972. More recently, outgoing Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste commuted eight death sentences and New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya commuted five before he left office.
Ryan's pardoning four men at once "tells me he was utterly convinced as to the innocence of these individuals," said Daniel T. Kobil, a pardons and clemency expert at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.
In a 40-minute speech, Ryan went into great detail about each of the cases, pointing out where police, investigators and most egregiously, he said, the courts failed repeatedly to deliver the men. All were interrogated -- and supposedly confessed -- at Chicago's Area 2 headquarters, where investigations later revealed the commander, Jon Burge, tortured suspects and oversaw their torture by his detectives during the 1970s and 1980s. An estimated 60 suspects were beaten, given electric shocks, threatened with guns and smothered into unconsciousness.
Hobley's case, like most, was riddled with problems that included a "lost" confession and the jury foreman, a suburban police officer, placing his sidearm on the jury table and saying, "We'll reach a verdict."
Howard, who spent 17 years in prison, was convicted of shooting a man despite considerable exculpatory evidence primarily on the testimony of a witness who was drunk at the time and only identified him six months after the crime.
Orange, who spent 17 years in prison, was convicted of murder in 1985, almost entirely on a confession he later maintained was false, and which he gave only after being tortured by Burge.
Patterson, whose father was a Chicago police lieutenant, also confessed, to a double murder. Then he took a paperclip and scratched into an interrogation room bench: "I lie about murders. Police threaten me with violence. Slapped and suffocated me with plastic. Signed false statement to murders." No physical evidence linked him to the crime and an accuser recanted her testimony. He spent 17 years behind bars.
"In some way I can see how rogue cops 20 years ago could run wild," Ryan said. "I can see how, in a different time, they perhaps were able to manipulate the system. What I can't understand is why the courts can't find a way to act in the interest of justice."
Patterson's sister, JoAnn, received a copy of Ryan's speech before he entered a small classroom to deliver it. The words were hopeful, but she needed to hear the governor speak them before she would truly believe.
"Now that I've heard it, it's believable," she said. "I'm so happy the governor thinks the same way we do about the justice system."
Ollie Dodds, whose 34-year-old daughter was killed in the fire Hobley was convicted of setting, had the opposite reaction. "I don't know how [Ryan] could do it. [Hobley] doesn't deserve to be out there."
Ryan also pardoned two men Friday who had not been on death row. Miguel Castillo spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and Gary Dotson served eight years for a rape and kidnapping before the alleged victim admitted she'd made up the story to hide a sexual relationship with a boyfriend. Dotson was later cleared by DNA evidence.
A lifelong supporter of the death penalty, Ryan arrived in the Statehouse in 1999 with an agenda that included massive public works programs and education reform. But within weeks, his time was being consumed by revelations that innocent people were on death row, many of the revelations coming from Northwestern journalism students.
Amid the revelations of wrongful convictions, Ryan oversaw his one and only execution, of murderer Andrew Kokoraleis. Convinced of Kokoraleis' guilt, Ryan was nonetheless deeply troubled by the execution and the system and, he told The Times last year, never wanted to preside over another execution.
In 2000, when Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush supported the death penalty during their campaigns, Ryan instituted the moratorium, beginning a national reexamination of the ultimate punishment not seen in decades.
During the two weeks of clemency hearings, however, hundreds of friends and relatives of murder victims lambasted Ryan. They were joined by prosecutors across the state and country, who accused him of trying to undercut a system put in place by the people of the state.
As the hearings wound down, Ryan said he likely would not issue a blanket clemency. But recently he has said again and again that it would be unjust to execute people who were sentenced by an unjust system.
"This [weekend] could have profound meaning," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "If the governor wipes these sentences out [today], that's de facto abolition of the death penalty here. Then, if in the judgment of one governor this system was too defective to use, is the next one going to crank it up and start using it again anyway?"
Slater reported from Chicago, Weinstein from Los Angeles. Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this report.
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The men, the crimes, the prison time
* Aaron Patterson, 38, convicted of the April 1986 stabbing of an elderly couple, Rafaela and Vencente Sanchez, in their home. On death row 1990-2003.
* Madison Hobley, 42, convicted of an arson in January 1987 that killed his wife, his son and five other people. On death row 1990-2003.
* Leroy Orange, 52, convicted of the January 1984 stabbing deaths of his former girlfriend, her 10-year-old son and two others. On death row 1985-2003.
* Stanley Howard, 40, convicted of May 1984 shooting death of Oliver Ridgell as he sat in his car with Tecora Mulle. On death row from 1987 to 2003.
Sources: IllinoisDeathPenalty.com; Associated Press; Chicago Tribune