Illinois Governor Empties Death Row

The Injustice of the U.S. Death Penalty

Revolutionary Worker #1184, January 26, 2003, posted at

"The legislature couldn't reform it. Lawmakers won't repeal it. But I will not stand for it. I must act. 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. Because of all of these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates."

Illinois Governor George Ryan,
January 11, 2003

"Gov. Ryan Erases Death Row--`Demon of Error' Haunts System"

Chicago Sun Times front page,
January 12, 2003

"It was the best time in my life. I felt good. I felt relieved."

Joann Patterson, mother of Aaron Patterson,
on hearing that her son was pardoned from death row

On January 10 and 11, in his last days of being the governor of Illinois, George Ryan announced his decisions concerning the 171 prisoners on Illinois' death row, granting all of them clemency. 164 would have their sentences reduced to life without parole. Three had their sentences reduced to 40 years, while four others were pardoned as innocent victims, forced to give false confessions through brutal police torture.

The announcements were stunning, the verdicts unexpected. Ryan pointed to some of the underlying social causes of crime and the unjust and unequal way the death penalty is administered: " In the United States the overwhelming majority of those executed are psychotic, alcoholic, drug addicted or mentally unstable. They frequently are raised in an impoverished and abusive environment. Seldom are people with money or prestige convicted of capital offenses, even more seldom are they executed."

The fact that a Republican governor with a history of supporting the death penalty could come to such conclusions and make such decisions underscores just how blatantly unjust, racist, and brutal the death penalty is in the United States.

Several years ago Ryan decided to actually look into and really investigate how the death penalty had been administered in Illinois and how people were ending up on death row. He found that:

 102 prosecutors decide on whether or not to seek the death penalty, and vary wildly in their inclination to pursue capital cases.

 People are five times more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime in rural Illinois than Chicago and surrounding Cook County.

 People are three times more likely to be executed if the victim is white rather than Black.

A study showed that the instructions given to juries about sentencing were so confusing and obscure that 50 percent of Illinois' jurors could not understand them.

 Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 in Illinois, 33 death row inmates in Illinois were represented by trial lawyers who were later disbarred or suspended.

 46 of the death row inmates in Illinois were convicted based on jail-house snitch testimony.

 At least a dozen men sent to death row in Illinois had been tortured by police detectives.

 67% of the death-row population is African American in Illinois.

 35 Black death row inmates were convicted by all white juries in Illinois.

 Half of Illinois' nearly 300 capital cases were reversed for new trial or new sentencing.

 33 people convicted of murder in Illinois were later exonerated.

Between 1987 and 1990 in Illinois, while 12 people sentenced to death were executed, 13 people sentenced to death were found innocent-- exonerated.

Innocent Sentenced to Die

"Three years ago, I was faced with startling information. We had exonerated not one, not two, but 13 men from Death Row. They were found innocent. Innocent of the charges for which they were sentenced to die. Can you imagine? We nearly killed innocent people, nearly injected them with a cocktail of deadly poisons so they could die in front of witnesses on a gurney in the state's death chamber.... How does that happen? I'm a pharmacist. If I got 50 percent of my prescriptions back because they were filled wrong I wouldn't be in business."

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan

The cases of 13 innocent men on death row became the most glaring and cited examples of what Ryan and others have referred to as the "broken system." And it is what Ryan has often attributed to sparking his conversion about the death penalty--the realization that innocent men were being condemned, that the state had probably already killed many innocent people. Anthony Porter, one of the men on death row who was found innocent, had come within two days of being executed.

Witnesses were coerced and intimidated by police, including at gunpoint. Convictions were made based on police reported "confessions" and incriminating statements that were undocumented, unsubstantiated and proven to be manufactured. One defendant's "confession" came as a result of a beating. Prosecutors used false and bribed testimony from jail-house snitches to obtain convictions. Prosecutors first attempted to obstruct access to DNA testing and, when that failed, attempted to ignore or disregard results that proved a defendant's innocence. Police and prosecutors often ignored other suspects and even hid evidence that led to the actual murderers, even in one instance, when the actual killer offered to confess and was tied to the crime by DNA.

Ryan's decision to issue a "blanket clemency" was intended not only to avoid the execution of the innocent, but also those guilty who did not, in his words, "deserve" to die: people on death row who are mentally ill and mentally retarded; people whose actions came with serious drug or alcohol problems; people who had experienced a childhood of horror and abuse. These were issues never considered during sentencing, never brought to the jury because the lawyer forgot, didn't care, was drunk, or because money for medical experts was not available.

Larry Marshall, a law professor and legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, pointed out, "If the system can't get it right whether someone's guilty or innocent, how can we trust that system to decide whether someone should live or someone should die."

Tortured Injustice

"We have a criminal system, not a criminal justice system."

Costella Cannon, mother of Frank Bounds, one of the Death Row 10, who died in prison, speaking at rally on the eve of Ryan's announcement on the pardons

Every day I'm going through pain of not knowing when they are going to take my child. Not a day or night don't go by that I don't cry. It hurts... If they give him clemency, I know they're not going to take his life for something he didn't do. If he's alive, there's always hope. It keeps me going."

Louva Bell, mother of Ronald Kitchen, one of the Death Row 10

George Ryan pardoned Aaron Patterson, Stanley Howard, LeRoy Orange and Madison Hobley, who were four members of a group of death row inmates known as the "Death Row 10." This threw a national media spotlight on the handiwork of a torture ring that had existed for years in the Chicago Police Department. In addition to the four men pardoned by Ryan, the Death Row 10 also included Derrick King, Reginald and Jerry Mahaffey, Cortez Brown, Leonard Kidd, Andrew Maxwell, Grayland Johnson, Ronald Kitchen, and Frank Bounds.*

The Death Row 10 had all been convicted and sent to death row on the strength of alleged "confessions" extracted under torture by a group of Chicago police detectives under the command of Lt. Jon Burge, who headed up two police areas until his forced retirement in 1993.

In making his announcement, Ryan told the stories of the four men he was pardoning as innocent -- how they were brutally tortured into signing false confessions that were then used to convict and sentence them to death. The men had been subjected to one or a number of techniques from Burge's menu: suffocation with plastic bags ("dry submarine"), beatings with phone books (no marks) and open hands (pain to ears), suspensions by handcuffs, mock executions and simulated Russian roulette, electro-shocks with cattle prods or with an army field telephone, beatings with baseball bat, and other abuses. The People's Law Office in Chicago has documented more than 60 cases where suspects were tortured by or under the supervision of Jon Burge.

For years activists, lawyers, and family members, with limited success, fought to win freedom for Burge's victims--while the courts, police department and city officials worked to suppress any exposure of Burge's actions. One police department official went so far as to bury a number of investigative reports from the Office of Professional Standards that supported allegations of police torture. Only in the last few years did Illinois appellate courts and the Illinois Supreme Court order hearings to weigh the issue of torture-induced confessions. Five victims gave vivid testimony of how they were tortured by Burge and his gang--how the police used cattle prods to electro-shock their genitals and mouths. But still to this day there has not been a single prosecution of a police officer for torture. And until Ryan's pardon, no Burge victim had ever left death row.

Executioner Howls

"We should never again have to go through the travesty we suffered in the past few months, seeing a governor ignore thousands of hours of work by state and federal courts and trample on the raw emotions of families that testified to their excruciating losses."

Richard Devine, Cook County State's Attorney

"The [State's Attorneys] have a lust for blood, rather than a lust for healing. This system needs a healing, but rather than to fix the problem, they want to continue to have a problem--because they are a massive part of the problem."

Ruth Fields, sister of Nathson Fields,
former death row inmate whose conviction was overturned,
and who is currently awaiting retrial

The newly elected Democratic governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, called Ryan's decision "a big mistake," and Illinois State's Attorney General Lisa Madigan reaffirmed her support for the death penalty. Joe Birkett, the DuPage County prosecutor, said, "This is an attack on the American justice system." Dick Devine, Cook County State's Attorney blasted the four pardons of police torture victims as an "outrageous and unconscionable step."

Many of these officials speaking out against Ryan's decision were themselves part of the frame-up and railroad of innocent men.

Birkett was the last DuPage County State's Attorney to have a hand in the prosecution of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez--two men who were found innocent and freed from death row. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Birkett refused to drop charges against Cruz and Hernandez, or pursue any action against the man who actually acknowledged committing the crime.

Working for a few decades in the State's Attorney's office, Dick Devine supervised or signed off on many of the very cases being cited for prosecutorial misconduct. The Burge cases alone taint dozens and dozens more in the State's Attorney's office and courts, up to Chicago's own Mayor Richard Daley-- the head prosecutor for Cook County during Burge's reign. Devine's private law office represented Jon Burge as their client on numerous occasions in civil lawsuits and police board hearings.

A Profoundly Unjust System

"I celebrated for about five minutes... then I got angry."

Stanley Howard, one of the Death Row 10,
on realizing that Governor Ryan's pardon
 didn't extend to all of the wrongful convictions

"I didn't have anything to celebrate. My thing was that I was going to get on up out of here... My goal is to get out of here and not to stay."

Ronald Kitchen, one of the Death Row 10,
on being passed over for a pardon

One week after Ryan's announcements, the fallout continues, the limits of clemency become apparent, and new questions are raised. Only days after Ryan emptied Illinois' death row, the courts sentenced a man to death. There are 60 current cases in Illinois in which the state is seeking the death penalty.

The State's Attorney's office is determined to re-fill Illinois' death row. And prosecutors are seeking out any and every loophole to try and reverse Ryan's decisions. Some prosecutors are looking to refile charges against death row inmates that have been dropped in court. Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine has already filed two lawsuits to undo the clemency for 23 death row prisoners on technicalities. Republican lawmakers in the Illinois legislature, who have shown no interest in passing any of the 85 reforms to the death penalty recommended by Ryan's commission, have more enthusiastically weighed in against the clemency by introducing a measure to make it more difficult for future governors to grant clemency.

What remains is the fact that while the clemency and the pardons were clearly a political defeat for brutal cops and blood-hungry prosecutors, they will not change the nature of the system which brutalizes and railroads thousands and thousands of people into its prisons. We have to ask, if so many wrongful convictions and unjust death sentences were found in Illinois--what does this indicate about death row cases throughout the country? If such blatant injustice is found when the stakes are life and death--what does this say about all the other tens of thousands of men and women who are sitting in prison, sentenced to many years, sometimes to life in prison? And what does it say about the whole nature and workings of this system?



* The original Death Row 10 formed in 1998. Since then other Burge torture victims have joined the group. Frank Bounds died in prison in 1998, from disease and poor medical treatment.

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