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Ill. Gov. to Commute Death-Row Sentences

January 11, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) _ Gov. George Ryan said Saturday he was clearing the state’s death row and commuting the sentences of all 156 inmates who had been condemned to die. He warned victims’ families by overnight letter that the move was coming.

``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,″ Ryan said in prepared remarks Saturday.

``Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates,″ he said.

Ryan, who leaves office on Monday, had halted all executions in the state nearly three years earlier 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.

He said studies since that moratorium was issued had only raised more questions about the how the death penalty was imposed. He cited problems with trials, sentencing, the appeals process and the state’s ``spectacular failure″ to reform the system.

``Because the Illinois death penalty system is arbitrary and capricious _ and therefore immoral _ I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,″ he said. He said he sympathized with the families of the murder victims.

Other governors have issued similar moratoriums and commutations, but nothing on the scale of what Ryan planned.

``The only other thing that would match what he’s done is in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty and 600 death sentences were reduced to life with that decision,″ said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The most recent blanket clemency came in 1986 when the governor of New Mexico commuted the death sentences of the state’s five death row inmates.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendenning, who last year issued a moratorium on executions in his state, has no plans to pardon or commute the sentences of any death row inmate before leaving office Wednesday, spokesman Chuck Porcari said.

Ryan chose the speech Saturday at Northwestern University _ where journalism students investigating Illinois death row cases helped exonerate some inmates _ to publicly announce that he was commuting the 156 death sentences.

All but three of those sentences will go to life in prison without the possibility of parole, governor’s spokesman Dennis Culloton said. The three will get shorter sentences and could eventually be released from prison, though none will be out immediately.

Vern Fueling, whose son William was shot and killed in 1985 by a man now on death row, was outraged that the killer would be allowed to live.

``My son is in the ground for 17 years and justice is not done,″ Fueling said. ``This is like a mockery.″

Incoming Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, also criticized Ryan’s action, calling blanket clemency ``a big mistake.″ Each case should be reviewed individually, Blagojevich said. ``You’re talking about people who’ve committed murder.″

Ryan on Friday went a step farther in four other death row cases, issuing pardons for four men he said had been tortured by police into making false confessions.

A few hours later, Aaron Patterson, 38, walked out of prison a free man and ate his first steak dinner in 17 years, while Madison Hobley and Leroy Orange spent time with their families.

Stanley Howard, 40, the fourth man pardoned Friday, remained in prison. He had also been convicted of a separate crime for which he was still serving time. All four had been convicted in murders.

``It’s a dream come true, finally. Thank God that this day has finally come,″ Hobley, 42, said Friday as he left the Pontiac Correctional Center.

Orange, 52, walked out of Cook County Jail looking a bit dazed with his two daughters by his side.

``Thank you with all my heart and please do something for the remaining group on death row,″ he said, addressing Ryan.

The Republican governor announced the pardons Friday at DePaul University in the first of two speeches capping his three-year campaign to reform the state’s capital punishment system.

Patterson’s mother, Jo Ann, said she was overwhelmed when she heard the news.

``I don’t believe in miracles but this is a miracle,″ she said.

Reaction to the pardons from death penalty supporters was swift.

Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine said the future of the four men should have been decided by the courts. His office is trying determine if the pardons could be challenged, but Devine said the clemency powers for an Illinois governor are among the broadest in the country.

``Instead, they were ripped away from (the courts) by a man who is a pharmacist by training and a politician by trade,″ he said. ``Yes, the system is broken, and the governor broke it today.″

Ollie Dodds, whose 34-year-old daughter, Johnnie Dodds, died in an apartment fire that Hobley was convicted of setting, said she was saddened by Ryan’s decision.

``I don’t know how he could do it. It’s a hurting thing to hear him say something like that,″ she said, adding that she still believes Hobley is responsible.

``He doesn’t deserve to be out there.″

___

Associated Press Writers Maura Kelly, Nicole Ziegler Dizon, Eric Fidler and Nathaniel Hernandez contributed to this story.

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