Ryan commutes death row

Elaine Helm

UPDATED on Sunday, January 12th at 12:00 pm.

Outgoing Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of Illinois” 167 death row inmates to life in prison with parole in a Saturday speech at the Law School, validating years of work by Northwestern faculty and students to free the wrongfully convicted.

The governor”s unprecedented move, which came two days before he leaves office, was greeted by thunderous applause from the crowd of anti-death penalty acttivists, including three of the four former death row inmates pardoned Friday.

‘How many more cases of wrongful conviction have to occur before we can all agree that this system in Illinois is broken?’ Ryan said. ‘Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious, and therefore immoral, I nolonger shall tinker with the machinery of death.’

Ryan’s announcement was met with anger by some victims’ families, governor-elect Rod Blagojevich and Cook County state’s attorney Richard Devine, who were quick to criticize the decision as a mistake.

Ryan said he made the decision after weeks of wrangling with his own feelings about the issue and deliberating the merits of each case.

But blanket commutation for current death row inmates does not mean abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. The death penalty moratorium Ryan instituted in 2000 could change after Blagojevich takes office Monday.

Ryan praised the work of NU students and professors from the Medill School of Journalism and the Law School”s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

‘It is fitting that we are gathered here today at Northwestern University with the students, teachers, lawyers and investigators who first shed light on the sorrowful condition of Illinois” death penalty,’ he said.

‘A system that”s so fragile that it depends on young journalism students is seriously flawed,’ said Ryan, echoing remarks he has made before.

Anthony Porter, whose exoneration caused the governor to enact the moratorium, said he planned to host a victory party Saturday night to celebrate the decision.

‘I feel wonderful,’ said Porter, who was released from death row in 1999 after an investigation by Medill students shed light on his innocence. ‘The governor did the right thing, he”s a courageous man. There”s no doubt the system is broken.’

During his address, Ryan honored Prof. Larry Marshall, the center”s legal director, and journalism Prof. David Protess for their work to free some of the 17 death row inmates who have been exonerated since Illinois reinstated the deathpenalty in 1977.

‘Never have I met anyone with more passion or a fiercer sense of justice than these two men,’ Ryan said.

After the governor”s announcement, Protess told The Daily he plans to continue fighting to correct other unjust sentences. He said his students will shift their focus to investigating the cases of inmates serving life sentences who have been overlooked during the death penalty debate.

‘This is not a vindication,’ Protess said. ‘It”s the natural outcome of a decade of reporting on these cases. This is the result of young journalists digging until they find the truth and having a courageous governor willing to act on that.’

Robert Warden, the center”s executive director, said he hopes Ryan”s bold decision causes other states — not counting the 12 states that have already abolished the death penalty — to examine the flaws in their systems.

‘This is just the beginning,’ he said. ‘There are 37 other states that we”ve got to work on.’

The Daily’s Mindy Hagen contributed to this report.

Read The Daily Monday for full coverage of Gov. Ryan’s decision.