After Blanket Clemency, Illinois Struggles to Assess Its Effects

Times Staff Writer

The day after Gov. George Ryan cleared Illinois' death row with a blanket clemency, prison officials scrambled Sunday to find new cells for most of the 167 inmates affected, while some lawmakers said the bold move actually might impede efforts to reform capital punishment in the state.

Families of murder victims and others, meanwhile, continued to decry the commutations -- and Ryan looked toward an uncertain future on his last full day in office.

The U.S. attorney's office here is investigating whether Ryan had any knowledge during the time he served as Illinois secretary of state of truck drivers' licenses being exchanged for bribes. More than 50 people, including several close aides to Ryan, have been convicted in the scheme that kept him from seeking a second term as governor. And recent court filings suggest the 68-year-old Republican himself could face indictment.

Ryan, a former death penalty supporter, for three years sought to reform a system he has called "deeply flawed." Lambasting the state General Assembly for not instituting his reforms, on Saturday he commuted the death sentences of 164 inmates to life without parole, and those of three others to 40 years.

By emptying death row, some state lawmakers asserted Sunday, Ryan perhaps had slowed a growing momentum to reform the system. The death penalty is still state law, they noted, and Ryan's broad use of his clemency powers could be viewed as an effort to skirt the will of voters.

"The entire conversation has been about the fearful notion of an innocent person being on death row," state Sen. Peter Roskam said. Saturday's "decision had nothing to do with that. The governor even acknowledged that vicious killers -- their lives were going to be spared. As he seeks this legacy of being a death penalty reformer, his abuse of his clemency powers has set the process back."

The head of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, however, said Sunday that the fact no one is immediately facing execution may provide time for a thorough examination of the process.

"With no one remaining on death row, the legislature and the new governor [Democrat Rod Blagojevich] will have the ability to review the death penalty and the clemency process without having to make immediate decisions," review board chief Craig Findley said. "We can take a more deliberate approach to new death cases. There is an opportunity here for discussion."

Ryan instituted a moratorium on executions in 2000 after four death row inmates were exonerated during his first three months in office. That brought to 13 the number freed since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977. Last fall, at Ryan's urging, the prison review board heard clemency requests from 140 death row inmates who asked for them.

Although a small number of victims' family members had asked that their loved ones' killers be spared, the overwhelming majority who testified at the hearings pleaded that the death sentences be carried out.

In his announcement Saturday at Northwestern University School of Law, Ryan acknowledged that he expected scorn from the victims' families -- and he received plenty. What was unclear until after the speech was how the clemencies would be received by those citizens not directly affected.

Beyond the glass doors of the law school, which was packed Saturday with freed inmates, their families and supporters, many found the blanket clemency appalling.

"Tell the governor he's an idiot," one young man called out.

"Yeah, that's brilliant: Save all the murderers and butchers in the state," 48-year-old cabdriver Glenn Rossi said Sunday. "That's fair."

Promising to carry out Ryan's order to vacate death row within a week, state Department of Corrections officials began searching for new cells and organizing the heavily guarded transport of 156 killers. Eleven of those who received clemency are in other facilities awaiting hearings.

The male inmates are held in two prisons, the Menard and Pontiac correctional centers. Most will be transferred to maximum-security wings at Menard or another prison in Stateville.

The four formerly condemned women all are being held at Dwight Correctional Center. With relatively few maximum-security cells for women, they may stay where they are but have their status and rights changed.

The inmates soon will have the right to dine with others, take jobs in prison and attend classes. Most will have to share a cell for the first time since going to death row and give up one of two boxes of documents they had been allowed to keep.

Other murderers likely soon will occupy some of the vacated death row cells. Death is still a legal punishment in Illinois and 37 other states, and several death penalty cases are making their way through the courts now.

Blagojevich -- who called Ryan's mass commutation "a big mistake," saying each case should have been handled individually -- spent Sunday on a whistle-stop train tour that will take him to his inauguration today in Springfield.

Blagojevich, who will become the state's first Democratic governor since 1976, has said he will leave in place Ryan's moratorium on executions but has no plans to try to repeal the death penalty.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World