- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

Gov. George H. Ryan, Illinois Republican, yesterday commuted the death sentence of all 156 inmates on his state's death row, calling the capital-punishment system "arbitrary, capricious, immoral" and unfair.
"A decision on who gets the death penalty in the United States is as arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning," Mr. Ryan said in announcing his action unprecedented in U.S. history two days before he is slated to leave office.
"Our capital system is haunted by the demons of error, error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die," the governor said.
Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Mr. Ryan, said later all but three of the death-row inmates whose death sentences were commuted now face life in prison without parole. Mr. Ryan said he has commuted the sentences of the other three to 40 years each "to bring their sentences in line with those of their co-defendants."
Mr. Culloton said those three eventually could be freed from prison.
Mr. Ryan announced his decision a day after he pardoned four other death-row inmates who said Chicago police tortured their "false" confessions out of them.
The commutations and pardons capped a three-year examination of the death penalty, which began when Mr. Ryan announced a three-year moratorium on executions in January 2000 after courts found that 13 Illinois death-row inmates had been wrongly convicted since capital punishment resumed in 1977 a period when 12 other inmates were executed.
The departing governor announced the "blanket commutations" to a cheering, standing-room-only audience at Northwestern University law school. His televised remarks lasted more than an hour.
Families of the death-row inmates' victims were not invited to the event. Mr. Ryan said he's certain "my decision will draw scorn and ridicule from many who oppose it."
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney interviewed on CNN after Mr. Ryan's speech, said the Illinois governor's decision has sparked "outrage cries of betrayal" among police, prosecutors, relatives of crime victims and advocates for victims' rights.
"I don't think we'll see this happen in other states. I think the reaction will be very negative for victims' families. This is the ultimate betrayal," Mr. Coffey said on CNN.
Gov.-elect Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who takes office tomorrow, criticized Mr. Ryan's decision.
"A blanket anything is usually wrong," he said. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We're talking about people who committed murder."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Mr. Ryan's sweeping action, but "commutations at the end of a judicial process are a symptom of a broken death-penalty system, not a solution to it," he said.
He said the death penalty is "flawed nationwide," and he urged the Bush administration and Congress to approve a bill he is sponsoring that offers "national reforms to prevent the sort of terrible choices the governors now face" in deciding who lives and dies.
Jeffrey Toobin, CNN's legal analyst, said on the network that Mr. Ryan's decision will be a "turning point" in the debate over the death penalty, "but I'm not sure in which direction."
National polls show seven out of 10 Americans surveyed still support the death penalty if it is applied fairly.
In his speech yesterday, Mr. Ryan said his wife is "angry" with him for commuting the sentence of one man, "who killed a close friend of mine," but he said he felt he had no choice because of concerns that issues such as race and poverty were emerging as factors in death-penalty decisions.
Mr. Ryan told the Northwestern law students whose probes into the Illinois death penalty-process triggered the governor's initial concerns that a state study showed that a person was 3 times more likely to die for killing someone if the victim was white.
He said the Illinois findings mirrored those of a Maryland study of the death penalty, which was released late last week.
"We're facing what is shaping up to be one of the great civil rights struggles of our time," Mr. Ryan said of the death penalty.
Because of potential hostility over commutations, some already are looking for ways to try to undo them, but most legal experts interviewed yesterday said that change won't be possible.
"There is no court of appeals to review a decision of clemency or commutation by a governor," Mr. Coffey said on CNN.
Said Mr. Toobin: "There is no next step" to reverse Mr. Ryan's action. "These men will not be executed," he said on the cable network.
In his address, Mr. Ryan sharply criticized the Illinois General Assembly for its "spectacular failure" to reform the state's death-penalty laws.
"I've had to consider the horrible nature of the crimes that put these men on death row. I've watched in frustration as this state's General Assembly failed to pass even one death-penalty reform," he said yesterday.
Mr. Ryan said current death-penalty procedures in Illinois hurt both families of the victims and families of the sentenced inmate.
"The system of death in Illinois is so unsure that it's not unusual for cases to take 20 years before they are resolved. It's cruel and unusual punishment for families to go through this legal limbo for 20 years," he said.
The governor said his decision to commute the sentences was made within 48 hours of the announcement.
"I always said this was an option, but I didn't believe I'd do it myself," Mr. Ryan said. "I'm going to sleep well tonight, knowing I did this."
Amy Fagan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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