US Governor Overturns 167 Death Sentences in Momentous Blanket Clemency Agence France-Presse Sunday 12 January 2003
The governor of Illinois lifted the death sentences of 167 death row inmates, in an "historic" blanket commutation which could have far-reaching implications for other US states, observers said.
Given the state's "shameful" track record of miscarriages of justice, and the possibility that more innocent people might be sitting on death row, Governor George Ryan said he felt he had no option but to commute the 167 sentences to life without the possibilty of parole.
"Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error -- error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. Because of all of these reasons today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates."
Illinois has exonerated 17 people since the state re-instated the death penalty in 1977 -- more than any other US state except Florida.
Half of the 300 capital cases in the state have been reversed for a new trial or resentencing.
In one case a man who was eventually cleared of two murders came within 48 hours of being put to death. Anthony Porter was freed after a group of enterprising journalism students working with a private eye tracked down the real killer, who subsequently confessed.
Four others, who were exonerated earlier this week, claimed -- independently of each other -- that they had been framed by police who tortured them into making false confessions.
Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard and Leroy Orange served nearly 60 years behind bars before their names were cleared.
An independent prosecutor is investigating whether the police commander who oversaw the group of rogue cops who allegedly tortured the four black men and dozens of others between 1972 and 1986 should face criminal charges.
But it was the staggeringly inconsistent application of the death penalty throughout the state and the failure of Illinois lawmakers to act on proposed reforms that ultimately persuaded the outgoing governor that he must act, Ryan told an audience at Chicago's Northwestern University.
"The facts I have seen in reviewing each and every one of these cases raised questions not only about the innocence of people on death row, but about the fairness of the death penalty system as a whole."
The governor's historic vote of no confidence in this part of the judicial system was hailed by opponents of capital punishment who hope it will encourage some of the other 37 states that still have judicial execution on the books to look at what they believe are universal problems.
"Illinois is no worse than Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, California. This is a profoundly important step that he has taken and I think others will follow," said Barry Scheck, a lawyer with New York's Cardozo School of Law.
"The governor has established a real agenda for change ... he's really thrown down the gauntlet."
"This is just the beginning," said a jubilant Gary Gauger -- another of Illinois 17 exonerated death row inmates, and now an activist for capital punishment reform.
"I have tried so hard to get the media to report on prosecutorial misconduct, and judges who won't look at anything and the networks weren't touching it. Now the governor has said it, they might start airing this stuff," he said.
Gauger spent three years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of the 1993 murders of his parents.
"There's still a few more death row inmates who are innocent," said Aaron Patterson, who said he planned to dedicate himself to lobbying lawmakers on behalf of others he left behind.
Life without possibility of parole for 1st degree murder cases is a strong remedy. Most reasonable people agree that the accused of 1st degree murder crime ought to do the time. But, the death penalty system for capital crimes puts the innocent at risk of execution and the system is rife with racial disparities. If our government makes a mistake and executes the wrong person, can the government bring that wrongfully executed person back to life?
Besides, the WHC (Wackenhut Correction Corp) makes a profit by managing prison populations. Right? The less prisons, the less profit.