On The Record: Illinois Gov George Ryan


Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan is having a hard time these days. He's fighting with the legislature over the budget; he's dodging questions - and investigations - into a bribes-for-licenses scandal that occurred on his watch as Secretary of State; and he's under pressure to resign before his term is up in January.

On top of all that, he's still wrestling with what could be one of the most important and politically volatile decisions of his tenure whether to commute the sentences of all 173 inmates sitting on Illinois' death row.

In an interview Thursday (5/30) with Stateline, the governor stressed that he has made no decision. But he suggested he might take that step if the legislature fails to act before he leaves office on his proposed changes to the state's death penalty system.

Ryan also spoke briefly about his budget fight. He said things seem to be on track right now to win final approval of a $54 billion spending package for next year. But, he joked, "You know this place is so volatile you never know. It just takes a little pebble to get things off track."

Asked if lawmakers were trying to shift the hardest budget-cutting decisions to him, Ryan laughed. "That's the program right now. But if it's too hard, I may not do it."

Ryan two years ago became the first governor in the nation to order a moratorium on executions. His order stunned the people of Illinois and angered hard-line prosecutors and capital punishment supporters nationwide.

Some criticized his action as a move to draw attention from the licensing scandal. At the same time, however, his decision helped energize death penalty opponents who called the moratorium an act of "political courage."

Following are excerpts from the interview:

STATELINE.ORG: You were the first governor in the country to declare a moratorium on executions and some people, especially death penalty opponents and even some politicians, say it took a lot of political courage to step out front on an issue like this...

Ryan: I appreciate everybody saying that. But it's the difference between right and wrong. How do you in good conscience let innocent people go to the death chamber? I mean that wasn't a courageous act; it was a right act. We had 25 people on death row almost executed, several of them that were innocent. Thirteen of them as a matter of fact out 25. Twelve went free. How can you in good conscience say, Oh yeah, it's a good system.' You might as well flip a coin and say this guy goes, this guy doesn't...So there wasn't anything courageous about it. You know you've got to live with yourself. I would guess the toughest job about being governor is making those kinds of decisions.

STATELINE.ORG: You were, before you took this step, a supporter of capital punishment...

Ryan: All my life.

STATELINE.ORG: Has the last couple of years, what you've seen, what you've learned, changed your position on that?

Ryan: Here's what I've said. If we're going to have a system, like any system, then it's got to work. It's got to work right. And I don't know of any system that absolutely must work right, a system that's going to put people to death. So, why wouldn't we have the perfect system? Can we have one? I don't know. But I would guess there might still be occasions when the death penalty may be appropriate. But if we haven't got the right person, then that's not good.

STATELINE.ORG: What effect do you think the action you took in Illinois has had on the rest of the country, both from a legislative perspective and a political perspective?

Ryan: I think that it certainly brought the issue to the forefront. I've received mail from people from all over the world, frankly, and from out of state that say it was the right thing to do, and that we need a system that's going to work. There's probably not a system that's ever going to work perfectly, but I think it's had an impact on making people more aware like me of what its about. I don't know of anybody that wants to put innocent people to death. They want a system of justice that's fair and works. And that's what they've said, I think, in big numbers. That doesn't mean that those people that still support the death penalty have changed their mind. But if there's going to be a system they want to make sure it's right.

STATELINE.ORG: You've presented a bill of your own on capital punishment reform to the legislature...Realistically, what chance do you think you have of seeing that passed before your term is up in January?

Ryan: I introduced it not too long ago. And I said here is a study done by experts in this whole area both defense and prosecution and even victims and families _ and look at this thing, take it around the state, have public hearings on it, talk to people about it, even tweak it if you want, make some changes if you think it's going to make the system better. They haven't started that process yet because they're still messing around with this budget. But that's what I would hope they would do. And then, maybe, in the veto session we might be able to pass it. Now I heard yesterday that some senator took out parts of what he thought were good and has introduced it or has introduced it as a (separate) piece of legislation. That's okay, but I think they've got an obligation to take a two-year study by experts around the state, hold public hearings, get their own input, their own ideas and then fashion a proposal they may think is fair. And that's what I've asked them to do. Whether they will do it or not, I don't know.

STATELINE.ORG: There's a question, as far as I know that's still hanging out there -- there was a lot of talk around the country about the possibility of commuting the sentences of some on death row there; perhaps all...Have you reached a decision on that?

Ryan: I haven't, but I've got to tell you it weighs on my mind. As I look at the system and see the errors that are there it certainly weighs heavy on my mind. And I could well make that decision before I leave office. That's not to say that I have or I haven't (made a decision) but I've given it a lot of thought.

STATELINE.ORG: Would that be, possibly, a blanket commutation?

Ryan: How do you not do it if you're going to do it? How do you pick and choose? The question is are there any innocent people (on death row)? I don't know, and how would I be able to tell -- here let's execute this guy and not this one?

STATELINE.ORG: And would a decision like that be dependent on whether or not the legislature acts?

Ryan: Well, it might. You know, here's what amazes me about all of this. We spent a couple of years studying this because we knew we had a faulty system. If I had been a member of the general assembly, I would have taken that thing immediately and started to run with it...Of course the moratorium has been kind of a buffer for these guys (legislators) because there's nobody being executed at this point. So they've got time to do what they're going to do. I don't know what the next governor is going to do. But I think (both candidates) have said they're probably going to continue the moratorium, until they have some satisfaction about how well the system works. But eventually they may take the moratorium off.

STATELINE.ORG: A lot of the focus on these death penalty cases in recent years has been because of DNA evidence and new breakthroughs in the use of DNA and access to DNA. But if you look at the 101 cases of death penalty exonerations, only about 12 of those have actually been affected by DNA evidence...

Ryan: I didn't know that.

STATELINE.ORG: So that leaves a lot of other cases out there that have been resolved through other evidence, witnesses coming forward, technicalities in the trial and whatnot. Do you think there's been too much of a focus on DNA?

Ryan: I think it's a tool that ought to be used when it's possible to use. Let me give you an example of some cases I'm sure you know and you've probably written about. The classic example is a guy by the name of Anthony Porter. Anthony Porter was a guy with an I Q of less than 60. We measured him for his (death) suit, got his menu for the last meal... He'd been in jail for 17 years. In jail on death row for 17 years, if you can believe that. He was accused of killing a couple of people in a park. Eyewitnesses went in and said, "Oh yeah, he's the guy." But when the attorneys went in to the judge and said this guys's I Q is such that's he's not capable of defending himself, the judge simply gave him a reprieve. A couple of Northwestern students and professors jumped on it and started to do some research on it and went out and found the guy that did the killing, and he admitted it. It was a drug deal. He walked in and shot these two people. And it let poor Anthony Porter off the hook. Have you ever seen Anthony Porter?...All you've got to do is look at the guy and know he's not right. He wears a Lincoln stovepipe hat and he's got long curly hair, and he looks like this little harmless guy. That's because of his mental incapabilities. So, how you could put a guy like that on death row just amazes me. But there wouldn't be any DNA evidence that would take him out of that. If it hadn't been for the eagerness of these students and the professors there, we'd have this guy in a box and buried.

STATELINE.ORG: A lot of states have made the move to outlaw executions of the mentally ill and people convicted of murders when they were minors. Do you think the moratorium you issued impacted some of those recent decisions?

Ryan: I think it's caused a lot of people to think about it more like myself, as I said. People that were strong advocates of the death penalty now say, yeah, maybe we should look at this thing again. And I think that's been a big impact all over the country. I think it's made other governors and the people look at the systems and say if it isn't right we shouldn't have it.

STATELINE.ORG: So it's not just a question then as you see it of doing away with it or keeping it, but it's a question of maybe changing the laws to address certain circumstances and situations?

Ryan: Can we afford a system that's 99.9 percent perfect? If you're in the one-tenth, you don't want that kind of system. That's my concern.

STATELINE.ORG: I wonder if you've had a chance to talk to (Maryland) Gov. Glendening about his (moratorium) decision?

Ryan: No. We had met at the governors' conferences, but never talked about this. It seems to me his was based on not so much innocence as it was on race, as I recall...I don't know whether his delay will come up with the things that we came up with: you know inadequate defense, some overzealous prosecutors, bad jurors, any number of things that made our system, I think, faulty.

STATELINE.ORG: Thank you for taking the time. I know you're busy and you've got a lot of pressures...

Ryan: Well, the budget is unbelievable here. You know...I suppose that if I hadn't been elected governor, I would have never given (the death penalty) a second thought. But as governor you've got to make that decision. And when somebody says should this guy live or die, that's an awesome responsibility. You want to make sure that you've got it right. That's what woke me up to the fact. If I had been a pharmacist like I was before I became governor, I probably would have said the death penalty is for the bad guys and the people who commit these terrible crimes, and that they probably ought to be put to death. But when I found out how many errors were in it and the problems with it, I said well how the hell can we have a system like that? So that's where I'm coming from. >


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