Hope for the Innocent in Prison, Anger for the Innocent Buried

Times Staff Writer

Those who had been visiting grave sites all these years spoke angrily of injustice. So did those who had been visiting death row.

Those who had lost a daughter, a mother, a sister to murder spoke bitterly of their world ripped apart. So did those who lost a son, a father, a brother to death row.

Gov. George Ryan's announcement Saturday that he would empty Illinois' death row, commuting most capital sentences to life in prison without parole, evoked elation and fury, apprehension and hope. Families of murder victims and families of murderers broke down as they pressed into a packed law school classroom to hear Ryan's speech. Many faces in the crowd glistened with tears. There were many hugs. And quiet prayers.

And there was an urgent question: What next?

May Molina Ortiz pushed through the crowd in her wheelchair, clutching a photo of her son, Salvador Jr., convicted of murder a decade ago. He is not on death row. Ryan did not review his case. Yet Ortiz told anyone who would listen that her son was framed, unfairly locked up on a 47-year sentence.

She begged for further reviews of the Illinois legal system. She vowed that she would not let the momentum for reform stall when Ryan leaves office Monday. She dared hope that his blazing words about incompetent lawyers, corrupt police and vicious prosecutions would inspire an overhaul of the judicial system.

"There's a light at the end of the tunnel now. There's hope," she said. "Maybe now, we have a chance. Maybe it's our turn."

Gloria Jean Johnson echoed that prayer. The governor commuted her son's death sentence to 40 years in prison to bring it in line with co-defendants who received far less punishment. Still, Johnson, 59, was not satisfied: She maintains that her son should never have been convicted of shooting a young pregnant mother.

"I'm happy he's off death row, but I can't understand how he could be incarcerated one more day," she said. "The governor has until Monday at noon to change his mind. I'm just hoping he looks into his heart and does the right thing."

Yet relatives of murder victims argued that Ryan had done too much already.

"I know now that part of every paycheck I earn will be going to pay for the upkeep [of my son's killer] in prison," said Helen Muto, whose 18-year-old son was murdered in 1992.

"Twelve people found him guilty and felt the crime was horrible enough to give him death," Muto said. "I don't understand why the governor wants to change that."

In an emotional day, heavy with grief on all sides, the inmates' relatives offered gruesome tales of police officers beating, shocking and suffocating suspects to extract the confessions they wanted. The victims' relatives countered with horrific images of their own -- of children burned as they slept, of pregnant women slashed and beaten, of a murderer who tacked a memento of her kill to her car, like a souvenir.

The inmates' relatives complained about court-appointed defense attorneys who were incompetent, drunk, lazy or corrupt. The victims' relatives praised prosecutors who promised them justice and delivered -- until the governor, they said, betrayed them.

"He just pushed us off to the side," said Katy Salhani, who brought the governor 3,500 letters from friends and neighbors, all pleading to keep her sister's killers on death row. "I want justice, not in a vindictive way, but I want them to be put to death." The men cut her sister's baby from the womb and also murdered Salhani's young niece and nephew.

"I listened to five hours of testimony at the governor's clemency hearings, and it was horrible to come away thinking my family was one of the lucky ones, because my brother wasn't sodomized or tortured or dumped in flammable liquid ... because his body wasn't discovered by his own kids," said Sharon Gahlbeck. Her brother was killed by a woman he met in a bar shortly after his divorce. He left behind five young children.

"Yes, the governor has a right to do what he did," Gahlbeck said. "But I believe he abused his power with a blanket commutation. I really feel it was just a media blitz. I can't imagine he's doing it out of real conviction."

Many victims' relatives shared her rage. A few, however, stepped forward to praise Ryan. Activists from a group called Murder Victims for Reconciliation were given prominent seats at the speech, sitting along with family members of some inmates.

"The governor's decision today obligates all of us to do so much better than we've done in creating a trustworthy judicial system," said Jeanne Bishop. Her pregnant sister and her sister's husband were shot to death 12 years ago, and Bishop said she's glad the killer will never be strapped to a gurney for lethal injection.

"He should be punished every day for the rest of his life," she said. "But we don't want to repeat the violence that our family suffered."

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