Ryan’s clemency decision on death penalty holds, court rules

Sheila Burt

In a heartening decision for officials at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that former Gov. George Ryan had the authority to grant clemency for several inmates last January.

The decision resolved questions about Ryan’s authority to grant clemency to 32 inmates who did not file commutation petitions or who were awaiting new trials after their death sentences were reversed in an appeals court.

The ruling also grants governors a wide range of authority when commuting death sentences.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and other state prosecutors filed the lawsuit after Ryan pardoned four death row inmates and commuted the sentences of 167 others last January. NU’s center is viewed as having a significant influence on Ryan’s decision.

Ryan, who now faces federal charges for alleged corruption during his term in office, also placed a moratorium on the Illinois death penalty system in 2000 and gained national attention for his “blanket clemency.”

If the courts had agreed with Madigan, the inmates who did not sign commutation petitions and those who were awaiting a new sentence at the time of the clemency risked being sent back to death row.

“It’s obviously extremely important that no one got sent back to death row,” said Robert Warden, executive director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “Had it gone the other way, it would have been a serious setback for us and for the movements to reform the criminal justice system.”

Warden said some of the prisoners did not file petitions for several reasons, including suicidal tendencies and worries that their cases would not receive attention from advocates if taken off death row.

Officials at the center and at the University of Chicago’s MacArthur Justice Center filed petitions for the inmates who failed to do so.

The court’s decision adds hope that other governors will “muster the guts to do the right thing” and challenge the death penalty, Warden said.

“The death penalty is a hot-button issue that scares a lot of politicians,” he said. “I think it’s good to know that Illinois did it first and that (Ryan’s) action withstood challenge in the courts.”

In a 10-page filing, Justice Robert Thomas wrote that this “unreviewable power carries with it the responsibility to exercise in the manner intended.”

“Our hope is that governors will use the clemency power in its intended manner — to prevent miscarriages of justice in individual cases,” he wrote.

Madigan said in a Jan. 24 statement that she filed the lawsuit because the commutations “raised significant constitutional questions regarding separation of powers.”

“I brought this case to provide an orderly and expeditious resolution of all the commutation cases where these issues were raised,” Madigan wrote. “I am pleased the Supreme Court resolved these questions that have a significant impact on the administration of justice.”

Current Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has said he supports the death penalty in severe cases, continues to keep the moratorium in Illinois.

Blagojevich passed a series of reforms, which includes a new panel to report on the state of the death penalty, in November.

“The governor was heartened that the Supreme Court upheld the authority of our state executive to commute sentences,” said Abby Ottenhoff, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “It’s an important part of our democracy.”