CHICAGO (AP) – As Illinois begins emptying its death row by order of the governor, opponents of capital punishment are setting their sights on wider reforms, while death penalty supporters are questioning Gov. George Ryan’s motives.
On Saturday, Ryan commuted the sentences of all 167 condemned inmates – most to life in prison without parole – saying he felt a moral obligation to act because the system is “haunted by the demon of error.”
Opponents of capital punishment praise it as a bold move, and they are holding up the blanket clemency order as an example for the rest of the country to follow.
“It is inevitable that momentum will follow this announcement,” said David Elliot, spokesman 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 supporters, however, say the order was just a smoke screen to deflect attention from a political scandal that was threatening to become the governor’s legacy.
Ryan leaves office today, one day before opening statements are expected in the racketeering trial of his former chief of staff Scott Fawell and Ryan’s campaign committee.
“What an amazing coincidence that he holds this nugget in his pocket until the last moment,” Peoria County State’s Attorney Kevin W. Lyons said Saturday about Ryan’s commutation decision. “Why would he do that?”
“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 during the period when he oversaw drivers bureaus as secretary of state.
The scandal has led to the indictments of his friends, top aides and his campaign fund. Although Ryan has not been charged, prosecutors allege that he knew aides were destroying key documents that showed his political offices operated as an arm of his campaign.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said he knew of only two other campaign committees ever federally indicted: Richard Nixon’s Campaign to Re-Elect the President and the Lyndon Larouche campaign fund.
“As far as I’m concerned, the death penalty has never been the real issue. It’s a smoke screen,” said Jacqui White, upset that Ryan’s move means her sister’s murderer will be allowed to live.
Sen. Peter Roskam, a Republican who proposed more modest death penalty changes than Ryan pushed, said the backlash from victims’ families and prosecutors could hold back reform efforts.
“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.
Some death penalty opponents fear 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 state legislators could try to restrict governors’ power to grant clemency because of Ryan’s action.
Ryan set the stage for death penalty reform in 2000 when he issued a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Thirteen death row inmates there had been wrongly convicted since capital punishment resumed in 1977 – a period when 12 other inmates had been executed.
Maryland followed Ryan’s lead with its own moratorium last year, and several other states have been considering reforms, said Nancy Bothne, Midwest regional director of Amnesty International USA.
“He chose to fight the death machine,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said today in a guest sermon at a New York City church. “He chose to end legal lynching.”