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Death Penalty Foes Look Past Illinois

January 12, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) _ Now that Illinois’ death row has been emptied, opponents of capital punishment have set their sights on a larger target: the rest of the world.

They hope Gov. George Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences of 167 condemned prisoners will force other states and countries to examine their own justice systems.

But those who support the death penalty question the motives of Ryan, who leaves office Monday still haunted by a bribery scandal. They say the backlash from victims’ families and prosecutors _ along with the lingering questions about Ryan’s involvement in the scandal _ will nullify any lasting effect of his decision.

``It is inevitable that momentum will follow this announcement,″ said David Elliot, communications director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. ``It’s going to reinforce the emerging impression in the minds of the American public that the death penalty system is fundamentally flawed.″

Death penalty opponents cheered, sobbed and embraced when Ryan announced Saturday that he was commuting the death sentences of every condemned inmate in Illinois, most to life in prison. The outgoing governor said the decision was the natural ending to the ``journey″ he had begun in 2000 when he halted executions, citing flaws in a system that at the time had improperly kept 13 men on death row until new evidence freed them.

Yet angry advocates for the family members of murder victims claim Ryan’s journey is nothing more than a desperate attempt to deflect attention from a growing political scandal.

``It has nothing do with death penalty. It has nothing to do with right or wrong. It has to do with Governor Ryan building a legacy,″ said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Texas-based victims advocacy group that supports the death penalty.

Since Ryan took office in 1999, he has been dogged by a federal investigation into the trading of drivers licenses for bribes when he oversaw drivers bureaus as secretary of state.

The scandal grew throughout his term and led to the indictments of his friends, top aides and his campaign fund. Although Ryan has not been charged, prosecutors allege that the governor knew aides were destroying key documents that showed his political offices operated as an arm of his campaign.

``As far as I’m concerned the death penalty has never been the real issue. It’s a smoke screen for the investigation of the secretary of state office while George Ryan was in that office,″ said Jacqui White of Bloomington, upset that the convicted murderer of her sister is one of the men Ryan granted clemency.

Despite questions about Ryan’s motives, anti-death penalty activists still believe the grand statement he made by emptying death row will have a lasting impact.

Nancy Bothne, Midwest regional director of Amnesty International USA, said Ryan already had set the stage for reform with his 2000 moratorium. Maryland followed his lead with its own moratorium, while several other states are considering reforms, she said.

``The momentum has already been created,″ Bothne said. ``This just dramatizes it.″

Yet Illinois state Sen. Peter Roskam, a Republican who proposed more modest death penalty changes in the state than Ryan had pushed, said the decision to grant blanket clemency sets back reform efforts.

The public supports the idea of keeping innocent men from receiving death sentences, Roskam said. But Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences even of the guilty eliminates the outcry for change, Roskam said.

``I don’t think the public will understand why people who have committed vile, brutal crimes on children and women and men in Illinois will not get the ultimate punishment,″ Roskam said.

Ryan on Sunday said he hoped his decision wouldn’t make it harder to pass death penalty reforms.

``I would suppose that most people are reasonable. As a revenge kind of thing, I don’t know.

``Everybody has started to see, have a little better view of what the death penalty system is like in Illinois,″ he said.

Even some death penalty opponents acknowledge that Ryan’s sweeping decision may change the focus from an examination of capital punishment to an examination of the power of executive clemency.

Dianna Wentz, executive director of the New Orleans-based Moratorium Campaign, said some state legislators could try to restrict their governors’ power to grant clemency based on Ryan’s action.

But Wentz said she hoped lawmakers would decide instead to see his decision as a call to review their own death penalty systems.

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