NU profs petition Ryan to amend death penalty

Miki Johnson

Plenty of people have given Gov. George Ryan advice on what to do with Illinois’ death row inmates before he leaves office. Now Northwestern Law professors are putting in their two cents.

Ryan received a letter last week signed by more than 400 law professors, including 17 from NU, assuring him the law would support a decision to grant all death row inmates clemency.

This is NU’s latest contribution to a cause that already is associated with the university’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. The center led efforts to uncover wrongfully convicted men who had been sentenced to death in Illinois and eventually convinced Ryan to suspend state executions.

“The work that the Center on Wrongful Convictions is doing is an extremely moral and wonderful kind of work,” said Anthony D’Amato, an NU law professor who signed the letter. “We should be very proud to have it.”

People on both sides of the capital punishment debate have been watching Illinois closely since Ryan imposed the moratorium in 2000, according to Anthony Amsterdam, the letter’s organizer.

Amsterdam, a law professor at New York University, said he decided to write the letter after he heard prosecutors were telling Ryan he could not legally consider blanket commutation.

“The purpose of the letter was to make clear that if the governor chose to grant blanket commutation, he would be on very sturdy legal ground,” Amsterdam said.

Ryan received two other letters in November and December addressing clemency for all death row inmates. The first was signed by 650 Illinois lawyers and the second by 21 retired Illinois judges, according to a Dec. 30 Chicago Tribune article.

Despite the legal viability of the move, Cook County State’s Atty. Richard Devine maintains that granting blanket commutation would “negate rightfully gained death sentences that have already been handed down,” said Jerry Lawrence, a spokesman for Devine.

A case-by-case review would be the only fair way to grant commutation, according to Devine’s position. Ryan’s term ends this month, making individual review problematic.

But that is an insufficient reason for him to grant blanket commutation, Lawrence said.

“This responsibility doesn’t necessarily need to fall on Gov. Ryan’s shoulders,” he added.

Regardless of the governor’s decision, Amsterdam said the number of professors who signed his letter should convince Ryan that, as stated in the letter, “executive clemency should be, and has in fact been, used as a means to correct systemic injustice.”

Although Amsterdam is sure the response would have been smaller to a letter directly advocating blanket commutation, he said he would support that decision.

He cited several problems with the trial process for capital crimes including a heavy reliance on untaped confessions, incarcerated “snitches,” biased expert witnesses and unreliable eyewitnesses.

“The system not only is flawed, but the flaws are so gross that significant numbers of mistakes are inevitable,” Amsterdam said.