Illinois Court Upholds Total Amnesty of Death Row
New York Times
January 24, 2004
CHICAGO, Jan. 23
- The Illinois Supreme Court ruled on Friday that former Gov.
George Ryan was within his authority in commuting the sentences
of all prisoners on the state's death row.
The governor may
grant reprieves, pardons and commutations on his own terms, and
the decisions are "unreviewable," the court said.
Two days before he
left office, on Jan. 11, 2003, Mr. Ryan, a Republican, criticized
the capital punishment system as fundamentally flawed and unfair.
He commuted the sentences of 167 people on death row and pardoned
In their ruling on
Friday, the justices said that Mr. Ryan's use of blanket clemency
was unconventional and that they hoped that future governors would
instead use it in individual cases. But, the court added, the
state's Constitution supports Mr. Ryan's decision.
constitutional clemency powers allow him to completely or partially
absolve a defendant of the consequences of his crime, and to suspend
or commute any
sentence imposed by the judiciary," Justice Robert R. Thomas
wrote in the opinion.
Lisa Madigan challenged Mr. Ryan, saying he did not have the authority
to grant clemency to 32 prisoners, largely because they had failed
to file clemency petitions and were therefore not subject to his
The court said that
Mr. Ryan considered the death penalty system broken and that "the
failure of certain inmates to consent to their petitions was irrelevant
to the governor."
Ms. Madigan said the governor granted clemency to inmates technically
not on death row. Those inmates had been sentenced to death, but
their sentences were reversed on appeal. The court disagreed,
saying the prior sentences, though unenforceable, remained relevant.
In a statement, Ms.
Madigan said: "Public faith in our state's criminal justice
system has been shaken over recent years. It is my hope that today's
Supreme Court ruling, combined with much-needed and groundbreaking
death-penalty reforms, will help restore confidence in the integrity
and effectiveness of that system."
Mr. Ryan, 69, was
nominated last year for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on
the death penalty. He was indicted last month on charges of racketeering
conspiracy, mail and tax fraud and lying to law enforcement officials.
He has denied the charges.
The state's attorney
in Lake County, Michael J. Waller, said he was not surprised by
the Supreme Court decision. Mr. Waller acknowledged that Mr. Ryan
had acted within the law but said clemency should be granted only
case by case. The decision, the prosecutor added, may have spared
the lives of deserving inmates, but it also removed some of the
most violent offenders from death row.
Ryan did," Mr. Waller said, "was grant relief in cases
where it may have been appropriate. But in the overwhelming majority
of these cases, relief was unjustified."
Rob Warden, executive
director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern
University, an organization that helped coordinate the clemency
hearings and petitions, said he was confident that Mr. Ryan was
acting within the law.
"We had been
confident from the beginning that this would be the outcome,"
Mr. Warden said. "The Illinois Constitution seemed to be
absolutely clear and unequivocal that the governor has the right
to grant reprieve to anybody who stood convicted in the state