Feature: Ryan clemencies challenged

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  Feb. 6, 2003 at 3:54 PM
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CHICAGO, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The controversy over the blanket clemency for death row inmates issued by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan just two days before leaving office refused to die this week with challenges to his action by both the state's new attorney general and yet another prosecutor.

Ryan, who in January 2000 declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois, declared the state's death penalty law irretrievably broken Jan. 11 and cleared death row, pardoning four inmates and commuting the sentences of the rest. He said he took the action in part because the Legislature had failed to act on reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon commission. Those reforms would have limited the circumstances in which the death penalty could be imposed, guaranteed adequate representation for suspects and barred imposition of a death sentence based on the testimony of jailhouse informants.

Testifying before a congressional panel led by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., Monday, Ryan said it's very possible Illinois had executed an innocent person. He did not reveal a name.

Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977 but didn't perform its first execution until 1990. The state executed 12 inmates over the next decade but freed 13 condemned men who were exonerated by DNA and other new evidence, one of them just two days before his date with the lethal injection needle. Ryan's pardons brought the number of wrongly condemned to 17.

University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle nominated Ryan, who is facing possible federal indictment on corruption charges in a driver's licenses for sale scandal, for a Nobel Peace Prize but a measure already has been introduced into the Legislature to seize the prize money should Ryan win.

On Tuesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether Ryan had the authority to commute the sentences of 34 death row inmates who never sought clemency. And on Wednesday DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett filed suit to try to overturn the commutations, filing suit accusing Ryan of violating the state constitution's separation of powers, while Champaign County State's Attorney John Piland filed a petition saying Ryan didn't have the authority to commute the sentence of an inmate who had not sought clemency. Earlier, Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine and Will County State's Attorney Jeff Tomczak argued Ryan had no authority to commute the sentences of 10 inmates awaiting re-sentencing after their original death sentences were vacated.

Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego has introduced legislation that would limit the governor's power to issue pardons or commute sentences.

Though Ryan's action has sparked discussion of capital punishment, it has had little impact outside Illinois' borders. A moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland was lifted in January after Robert Ehrlich Jr. was sworn in as the new governor. California currently is considering legislation that would prevent that state's governor from issuing blanket clemency.

Only 33 states grant their governors exclusive and unconditional power to grant pardons and reduce prison sentences. Five others -- Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho and Texas -- give the power to a board appointed by the governor, and nine others -- Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas -- direct the governor to consider clemency only in cases recommended by a clemency board. In Nebraska, Nevada and Utah, the governor is a member of the clemency board.

Ryan's action did little to stem death penalty prosecutions in Illinois. The first death penalty case since Ryan issued his commutations is under way in downstate Charleston, Ill. Anthony Mertz is accused of killing a 21-year-old suburban Chicago woman at her Eastern Illinois University apartment.

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