SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said his predecessor, George Ryan, is guilty of "gross injustice" for granting blanket clemency or pardons to all the prisoners on death row before he left office.
Blagojevich, a Democrat who took his oath of office Monday afternoon, said Saturday's "sweeping blanket clemency was a mistake." He said Ryan's action to empty death row was "terrible" and a "gross injustice."
The decision, hailed as a courageous act by death penalty opponents, was harshly criticized by the state's 102 attorneys general, and survivors and relatives of murder victims.
"My wife even was angry and disappointed at my decision like many of the families of other victims will be," Ryan said.
Ryan, 68, a Republican who supported capital punishment when he was elected in 1998, pardoned four inmates on Friday, freeing three immediately, and in a historic announcement Saturday granted clemency to the remaining 157 prisoners on Illinois' death row during a speech at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.
"For the governor to grant pardons to these convicted murders is outrageous and unconscionable," said Cook County State's Attorney Richard A. Devine, chief prosecutor of one the nation's largest court systems.
"I am sure that the governor expects that the acts of pardon and clemency ... will be long remembered -- and they will be remembered among the most irresponsible decisions ever taken by a state's chief executive."
Ryan spent his last morning in office making appearances on national television shows defending his decision to convert death sentences to life in prison without parole because of flaws in the state's capital punishment process.
"The fact that I did do each case, case-by-case, is what really changed my mind," Ryan said in a "Today Show" interview. "As I had a chance to look at each case I didn't know how I could really just kind of cherry-pick the situation to determine who was guilty and who was innocent. You should understand that I realize that we have released ... from death row people who are guilty, and I know that and understand that. But the question is how many are innocent and that's been the problem. And with the faulted system that we've had here in Illinois the risk is better than 50 percent that we have some innocent people there."
Illinois executed 12 prisoners during the 1990s, one fewer than the 13 condemned men that were cleared of crimes by DNA and other evidence.
Ryan said nearly half of the 300 death sentences handed down since Illinois instated the death penalty in 1977 had been reversed for new trial or re-sentencing.
DuPage County prosecutor Joe Birkett said Ryan showed no respect for prosecutors or survivors of crime victims in granting the blanket clemency. About 60 family members who joined prosecutors at a Sunday news conference in Wheaton said they felt betrayed.
"He hasn't heard the cries of these families," an angry Birkett told reporters. "And there's nothing I can do or anyone can say to undo the pain that he has inflicted on these families."
Among the formerly condemned inmates now serving life were Jacqueline Williams and Fedell Caffey, a couple convicted of cutting a live fetus from the womb of Debra Evans, a 28-year-old woman stabbed to death in her suburban apartment in 1995. They killed her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son and attempted pass the baby off as theirs.
"George Ryan broke the system when he commuted the sentences of all convicted murders," said Sam Evans, father and grandfather of the victims. "I have nothing to say to Governor Ryan. I have nothing but contempt and disgust for a man who abused the powers that the State of Illinois granted him."
"He spit in our faces," Katy Salhani, Debra Evans' sister told the Daily Herald newspaper.
Devine said the time had come for major legislative debate over the death penalty. A blue-ribbon commission last year recommended 85 changes in the state's capital punishment laws but the reforms were never enacted.
"Is this all just a figment of our imagination?" Devine asked. "Something that's in the books, the death penalty, and it doesn't mean anything. A family that is grieving is saying this is a case that deserves the death penalty. What are we to say to them?”
Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University Law School professor who has fought for death penalty reforms in recent years, admits families are suffering, but says it is not because of Ryan's actions.
"These families deserved so much better than what the system has given them in the past," Marshall said. "If prosecutors had been willing to do their jobs fairly in the past, none of this would have been necessary."