- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

The Illinois Supreme Court yesterday upheld the right of former Gov. George Ryan to commute the sentences of every death row inmate in the state before he left office a year ago.

“We believe that the grant of authority given the governor (under the state constitution) … is sufficiently broad to allow former Governor Ryan to do what he did,” the seven-member court said in its ruling, written by Justice Bob Thomas. No dissents were filed.

Mr. Ryan, a Republican, commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates and pardoned four others before leaving office in January 2003. At the time, Mr. Ryan held that decisions about who gets the death penalty “are as arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning.”

In 2000, when Mr. Ryan discovered 14 death row inmates were wrongfully convicted, he imposed a three-year moratorium on executions in Illinois.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, backed by prosecutors throughout the state, challenged the former governor’s constitutional authority in 32 of the commutation cases.

Those cases involved inmates who had either failed to request clemency, as required by state law, or whose death sentences were not in effect at the time of the commutations because their cases were being appealed.

The Illinois Supreme Court justices noted in their opinion that the state constitution says a governor can grant reprieves, pardons and commutations “on such terms as he thinks proper.” This means his power in this area “can be controlled only by his conscience and his sense of public duty,” the justices said.

A commutation amounts to a reduction in the punishment to which a person has been condemned. Death row inmates whose sentences were commuted by Mr. Ryan were given either life or up to 40 years in prison.

Despite finding that Mr. Ryan was legally entitled to commute all death row inmates’ sentences, the Supreme Court justices said they believe pardons and commutations should be addressed individually, not on a group basis.

This is what Illinois’ current governor, Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, said when Mr. Ryan cleared out death row last year.

On Tuesday, Mr. Blagojevich announced that death penalty reforms for Illinois are complete. However, he said, the moratorium on capital punishment will remain in effect until it is seen how the reforms affect future trials.

In a statement yesterday, Ms. Madigan, said the Supreme Court’s decision should have a “significant impact on the administration of justice” in the state.

“It is my hope that today’s Supreme Court ruling, combined with much-needed and ground-breaking death penalty reforms, will help restore confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of that system,” she said.

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