Outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 of the state's death row inmates Saturday, calling the system of capital punishment as "arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning."
The dramatic order came from a conservative Republican and former death penalty supporter whose personal transformation prompted him to call a moratorium on executions in 2000 and lead a three-year fight to reform the system. Ryan's actions have done much to reinvigorate the national debate over capital punishment.
Invoking his virtually unfettered gubernatorial power to grant clemency, Ryan changed the sentences of 164 of the inmates to life without parole, and those of three others to 40 years in prison. The move -- which immediately drew worldwide praise and stern local condemnation -- seems certain to prompt further inquiries into death penalty systems in the United States.
During his four years in the statehouse, Ryan, 68, came to view Illinois' system as capricious, unfair and prone to mistakes. With the four death row inmates he pardoned Friday, a total of 17 have been freed since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977; 12 have been executed.
"Our capital punishment system is haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," Ryan thundered in his deep voice Saturday at Northwestern University School of Law. "Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.
"This," he said, "is a blanket commutation."
The handpicked crowd of about 100 roared, the applause led by three death row inmates Ryan had pardoned Friday, their families and several other former condemned men who were freed in recent years, symbols of a system Ryan called "deeply flawed."
"This is wonderful. This is good," said a grinning Aaron Patterson, free Saturday for the first time in 17 years after Ryan pardoned him Friday for a double murder. Patterson has maintained he was tortured into confessing, and numerous investigations strongly suggested he did not commit the crime. Unable to contain himself, Patterson gave several one-man standing ovations and clapped quietly almost nonstop through Ryan's speech.
People across the state began speculating on Ryan's plans after the Friday pardons, and national and local telecasts carried parts of the speech live. While the mood at the university was ebullient, many who tuned in did not like what they heard at all.
The families of victims, prosecutors and incoming Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich decried the announcement.
"A big mistake," said Blagojevich, who takes office Monday. "You're talking about people who have committed murder."
Vern Feuling, whose son William Feuling was stabbed to death during a 1985 robbery, said: "My son is in the ground for 17 years, and justice is not done. This is like a mockery."
Blagojevich said Ryan should have handled each case individually rather than emptying death row. He has said he intends to leave in place the moratorium but will not seek to halt new death sentences.
Last year, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening followed Ryan's lead and announced a moratorium on executions. Glendening's successor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said Ryan's order did not dissuade him from his plans to end Maryland's moratorium after he takes office Wednesday.
Twelve states have abolished the death penalty and, as Ryan noted, the United States is the only Western democracy and one of few developed nations that still use death as punishment. World leaders including former Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, and Mexican President Vicente Fox all encouraged Ryan in recent days to commute the sentences.
Although several governors have issued mass commutation orders over the years, the largest in modern history was 15, by outgoing Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1972. Since the Supreme Court permitted states to reinstate the death penalty in 1976, there have been 46 such commutations nationwide. The scope of Ryan's order -- 156 were on death row when he announced their clemencies and 11 had been sentenced to death but were awaiting hearings -- will cause other states to consider reworking their death penalty systems, many experts agree, and perhaps their support of the punishment.
"Other states are going to look at this very closely," said Rob Warden, executive director of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions, which has played a key role in many of the state's exonerations. "Whatever the flaws are in Illinois, they're less than in the vast majority of other states. We don't have the worst system by a long shot.
"Some people have feared there would be a backlash after these clemencies, but I don't think that's the case," Warden said. "This issue is not as salient for proponents as it once was ... because of all the publicity, the revelations of the serious flaws. I think the opposition to the death penalty is going to continue to grow."
Ryan made up his mind to grant a blanket commutation, he said, only in the last week, and that he and aides worked into the wee hours Saturday to ensure every sentence would be commuted.
He spoke at Northwestern because faculty members and students had helped exonerate several of the inmates freed in recent years, helping launch "my journey from staunch supporter of capital punishment to reformer," Ryan said.
The hardwood benches of Lincoln Auditorium were filled with exonerated inmates, their families, as well as a cadre of students, attorneys and investigators who had helped set them free. Everyone knew what was coming, but they still waited anxiously in their seats as Ryan spoke for an hour before he actually said it.
"The legislature couldn't reform it," he said. "Lawmakers won't repeal it. I won't stand for it. I had to act ... I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates."
The audience erupted, less in a cheer than an expression of profound relief.
Among the problems Ryan faced after deciding the system required an overhaul was that the top law enforcement official in each of the 102 counties, the state's attorney, has nearly complete say over which defendants face the death penalty. Someone convicted of murder in rural southern Illinois is five times as likely to face the death penalty as a murderer in Cook County, which encompasses Chicago.
A 1999 investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed that nearly half of 300 capital cases had been reversed for a new trial or new sentencing; 46 inmates on death row were convicted primarily on the basis of jailhouse informants; 33 were represented by attorneys who at some point had their bar licenses suspended or were later disbarred.
"How does that happen?" Ryan recalled saying after reading the series. "I'm not a lawyer, so somebody explain it to me .... But no one could. Not to this very day."
Ryan went further than he ever has in condemning the state system, but also the death penalty in general, sounding very much like an abolitionist without quite calling for the end of capital punishment.
When Ryan took office in January 1999, the death penalty was the furthest thing from his mind, he said in interviews late last year. After a rapid series of exonerations, however, he found that the death penalty system was taking up most of his time.
During his first three months in office, Ryan -- who as a young state legislator had voted to reinstate the death penalty -- saw four condemned men freed, bringing the total to 13. Ryan asked a panel of prosecutors, judges, former Sen. Paul Simon and others to look into the system. After two years of study, the panel's recommendation, in the words of chairman and former U.S. Attorney Thomas Sullivan: "Repair or repeal [it]."
Over the last three years, Ryan and staffers have reviewed every death row case, most of them several times. The majority of the condemned are guilty, everyone agrees. But some may not be, Ryan emphasizes. Others are on death row while counterparts equally involved in the same crime are serving lesser sentences.
Despite the obvious failures in the system, Ryan had nevertheless gone back and forth repeatedly on the issue of a blanket clemency. He and aides hinted strongly over the summer that there was a good possibility he would commute all death sentences. Then, after two weeks of clemency hearings during which family members of victims and prosecutors excoriated him, Ryan said a mass commutation was unlikely.
He sent broad reform packages to the legislature three times in the past year. Each time, lawmakers declined to pass the bills.
Ryan said he expected scorn and damnation from victims' families and others, and he pleaded with overjoyed convicts and their relatives to remember those who lost loved ones and disagreed with his decision.
Recalling the Survivors
Larry Marshall, the legal director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions, in his introduction of Ryan also encouraged people to remember the survivors: "Their pain is real, and it is incumbent on us to respect it."
Few victims' family members attended the speech, but many lamented Ryan's order and wanted to remind him who some of the people he spared really are.
Lorenzo Fayne raped and murdered five children in the 1990s, stabbing one more than 20 times, hanging another by a belt in her high school locker room. Edward Spreitzer was a member of the "Chicago Rippers" a group that murdered and mutilated as many as 20 women, police believe, eating parts of their bodies. Andrew Johnson laughed, prosecutors said, as he sliced apart Vern Feuling's son William.
All told, the 163 men and four women whose sentences were commuted were convicted of killing more than 250 people.
The formerly condemned "have not had their day in court, they've had their years in court," said Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons, who has prosecuted many death penalty cases. "It's shameful that the victims of this state have not to fear the courts, not the defense lawyers, not the defendants. They have to fear their very own governor."
Ryan acknowledged that he could never know the misery of the victims' families, having swallowed only "a small bit of the bitter pill" of such tragedy when a family friend was lured from his home and buried alive during a robbery scheme. Ryan's wife, he noted, who was especially close with the friend, has deep reservations about the clemencies.
So does he, Ryan hinted.
"I may never be comfortable with my final decision," he said. "But I will know in my heart that I did my very best to do the right thing."