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Ex-governor serves self-imposed ‘sentence’ to end death penalty


Ex-governor serves self-imposed ‘life sentence’ to end death penalty

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George H. Ryan

Nov. 1, 2004  

By Lynne DeMichele*

KANKAKEE, Ill. (UMNS) – Just one day before Gov. George H. Ryan retired from public service in January 2003, he did something shocking and unprecedented. He closed down the state of Illinois’ death row and commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates there to life without parole.

His contentious act touched off an avalanche of outrage from prosecutors and the families of victims and created new enemies among some powerful political figures. Yet it is that same act for which George Ryan was nominated for the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Another high-profile politician was also nominated for the 2004 peace prize — President George W. Bush. Bush and Ryan are both conservative Republicans and practicing United Methodists, but there the parallel ends. The president is a staunch advocate of the death penalty.

Ryan’s act of blanket commutation in Illinois is clearly at odds with the president’s position. And Ryan himself is now under federal indictment for fraud and other charges relating to earlier campaign fundraising — charges seen by some as politically motivated.

In his retirement, Ryan continues to serve a self-imposed life sentence to end the death penalty worldwide.

“I’ve come full circle,” he said in an interview with United Methodist News Service. For most of his life, he believed in the death penalty as an appropriate tool for a law-based society. And in 1987, the abduction and murder of his friend, Kankakee newspaper publisher Stephen Small, provided another much more personal reason for supporting it.

Hand on the switch

A former pharmacist in the small town of Kankakee, Ryan served in Illinois state government for 30 years, working his way up the political ladder from state representative to secretary of state and lieutenant governor. Through all those years, “I was a believer in the system,” said Ryan, sitting in the small office space he uses at his son’s insurance agency in Kankakee.

He remembers vividly the time early in his political career just before the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. He voted in support of capital punishment in the state of Illinois, but afterward, he was haunted by a question asked by someone speaking against the practice: “How many of you would throw the switch?” His position did not change until the day he moved into the governor’s mansion.

Immediately after inauguration, he found himself face to face with the issue. In a case garnering national attention, a mentally retarded man was due for execution. As Ryan studied the case and agonized over a possible commutation, law students at Northwestern University uncovered evidence exonerating the man. Anthony Porter – with an IQ of 51 –had already spent 15 years on death row when he was finally cleared of all charges. His release came just 48 hours before he was due to die.

“That really shook me up,” Ryan remembered. “My hand was ‘on that switch.’”

The United Methodist Church officially opposes capital punishment, but Ryan – a lifelong member – cannot recall the subject ever being discussed in church. “We never questioned it,” he said. Despite the church’s position, its membership is divided on the moral issue of capital punishment.

As with many other Christians, Ryan believed it was sometimes justifiable. Even so, the new governor resolved to study the system that had made such a nearly disastrous mistake in the Porter case.

An unfixable system

Ryan was appalled to discover that in Illinois alone, nearly half of the 300 death penalty verdicts in the previous 25 years were reversed over time because of new exculpatory evidence. Something was clearly wrong with the system, Ryan concluded, and while occupying the state’s highest office, he was in a position to do something about it. One state execution had already occurred on his watch, but soon after, he put all other scheduled executions on hold. Then he put the state’s judicial system under a microscope.

During the four years that followed, Ryan conducted hearings for victims’ families and for each of the 160-plus inmates on death row at the time. He consulted with a host of prosecutors, defense attorneys and psychologists, and he established a state Capital Litigation Fund to ensure competent legal representation for those accused of capital crimes.

By the end of his term, he concluded that the system was unfixable. Extensive research revealed a tangle of persistent and intractable problems with the judicial system. He believed that it was inherently “capricious, arbitrary and very racist.” So, as his last act in office on the day before retiring, he changed the sentences of all the inmates on death row to life without parole. And he resolved to devote his post- political energies to calling for other governments to do the same.

Under indictment

The same year in which George Ryan made national headlines by announcing the death row commutations, he was surprised to find himself under federal indictment for racketeering and fraud. The case rested on testimony by a former aide, Scott Fawell, who was also indicted and then offered a significantly reduced sentence for implicating his former boss. After sentencing, he was asked by reporters if the former governor had done anything wrong. Fawell shot back, “No, absolutely not. … I’m not going to go in there and make up stories about (Ryan) just to save myself.” Nevertheless, the indictment against Ryan still stands, and the case will be heard next March. Debts for his legal defense continue to mount.

One of Ryan’s supporters, Francis Boyle, said it’s a case of political retribution. Boyle is an international law professor at the University of Illinois’ College of Law. In a phone interview, he told United Methodist News Service, “The Department of Justice under (U.S. Attorney General John) Ashcroft is pro death penalty, as is Bush, and this case is intended as a message. … When the federal government goes after you, it’s an awesome experience. I know what happens.”

Boyle, who had not known the governor before reading news of the commutations, said he is a lifelong abolitionist. It was he who nominated Ryan for the Nobel Prize, both in 2003 and 2004.

The Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law agrees with Boyle. The center had helped Ryan in gathering statistics and other information when he was studying the workings and records of the Illinois judicial system. Speaking on behalf of the center, Assistant Director Jennifer Linzer said she believes there is a clear link between Ryan’s federal indictment and the pro-death penalty stance of the Bush administration. “It would be naïve to assume otherwise.” She added, “(Ryan) made them look bad … (and) called into question their position.”

A request to the U.S. Attorney General’s office for comment was declined. “We don’t respond to these kinds of charges,” aide Randall Sandborne said. “We don’t comment on a pending case.”

‘Matter of education’

Despite the legal distractions, Ryan is undeterred. “I’m not spending any time worrying about it,” he said. Now in debt for more than $2 million in legal fees, he nevertheless persists in his quest for a universal moratorium. Realizing that “we’re at least a couple of generations away from (abolition),” Ryan, 70, said he will devote the rest of his life to working for an end to capital punishment.

“It’s a matter of education,” he said. In America, “we’ve made the death penalty bloodless – more culturally and socially acceptable,” which neutralizes a public sense of horror at the notion of state-sanctioned killings, he said. He also points to the fact that only two industrialized democracies in the world, the United States and Japan, still use the death penalty.

When asked if he was concerned only with the possibility of executing an innocent person or if he objected to any execution as punishment, he said he was for total abolition now. “You’re never going to be absolutely sure. … Humans are imperfect, and even the best judicial system is flawed.” Most civilized societies recognize this, he added, and “they’ve done away with (capital punishment).”

A big man with an authoritative voice and the zeal of a prophet, Ryan continues traveling across the country and around the world in support of a moratorium. Recently, he testified before the U.N. Human Relations Commission, which subsequently passed a resolution calling for a worldwide stay of executions and in-depth study of the issue.

At this point, it would seem to be a lonely quest, but he hopes that churches will eventually play a role in what he sees as a universal moral issue. “The Ten Commandments say, ‘Thou shalt not kill’,” Ryan pointed out. While mainline denominations, including American Baptist, United Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic, are officially against legal executions, he believes they’ve done little to change people’s attitudes or to work for the redemption of those under sentence of death.

While it would seem logical that our politicians, too, might address the issue, Ryan believes they won’t because “they’re afraid they won’t be seen as tough on crime.” Why, then, he wonders, don’t the churches take up the cause?

“It’s about redemption,” Ryan said. “Do we really believe people can be redeemed? If that’s not a church issue, I don’t know what is.”

*DeMichele is a freelance writer living in the Seattle area.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or


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