- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

CHICAGO, Jan. 11 (UPI) — As of Saturday, Illinois' "death row" sits empty.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in one of his final actions before leaving office Monday, decided his state's death penalty statute is too flawed to impose.

He used his legal authority to grant clemency to change the sentences of three condemned inmates to 40-year prison terms, saying there were inconsistencies in the ways Mario Flores, Montell Johnson and William Franklin were sentenced compared to accomplices in their crimes.

For the other 152 inmates on death row, Ryan commuted their sentences to life in prison, without the option of parole.

Illinois has been a key state in the issue of death penalty debate because of the number of errors that have cropped up in recent years.

During the 1990s, 12 inmates were executed by lethal injection. But 17 other death row inmates were ultimately exonerated of their crimes — including four Ryan pardoned Friday.

But the Illinois General Assembly has been reluctant to approve a series of reforms devised by a task force.

Ryan said Saturday while addressing law school students at Northwestern University the Legislature's refusal to act is what swayed him to clean out the death rows that exist at the state prisons in Chester and Tamms. Tamms houses the state's execution chamber.

"To say it plainly one more time, the Illinois capital punishment system is broken," Ryan said. "It has taken innocent men to a hair's breadth escape from their unjust execution.

"Legislatures past have refused to fix it. Our new Legislature and our new governor must act to rid our state of the shame of threatening the innocent with execution and the guilty with unfairness."

Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich said he does not think death row needed to be cleaned out to reform capital punishment, adding he hopes to approve reforms at some point in his administration.

Also upset was the Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association, which said it saw Ryan's "blanket commutation" as an insult to the officials involved in the rounds of legal appeals death row cases are put through.

"The granting of pardons or commutations for any other reason would usurp the discretion of the judges and juries who heard the cases," association President Bernard Murray said. "It would be an affront to the victims' families and the communities affected by these crimes.

"It would trample on the law made by the common consent of the people."

But Ryan, who admits that Mexican President Vicente Fox, former South Africa President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu all contacted him in the past week to urge the mass commutation, said he thinks his actions are just.

"I realize it will draw ridicule, scorn and anger from many who oppose this decision. They will say I am usurping the decisions of judges and juries and state legislators," he said.

"But as I have said, the people of our state have vested in me to act in the interest of justice. I can tell you this, I'm going to sleep well knowing I made the right decision."

Ryan's decision received praise from the American Civil Liberties Union and from Amnesty International, both of which were glad to see the outgoing Illinois governor take the stance.

Chicago-based criminal defense attorney Jed Stone, who had seven clients on Illinois' death row, said he was pleased, even though his clients are now looking at the prospect of years, or even decades, of time served in maximum-security prisons.

"Life is life. It's better than death," Stone said. "This is a huge step for the governor to take, and he has a right to be proud of his actions."

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