Ex-governor underwent death penalty flip-flop


Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, right, greets supporters as he returns to his hometown of Kankakee, Ill., at the Kankakee Airport Monday.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2003 at 12:48 a.m.
CHICAGO - With less than three days left as governor of Illinois, George H. Ryan looked at the staff members who were helping him decide who on death row should live and who should die.
"I can't play God," he said finally. With that, Ryan's staff knew that the governor would empty out Illinois' death row of all 167 of its inmates and complete his remarkable, four-year journey from staunch supporter of capital punishment to one of the country's most influential anti-death penalty advocates.
From Ryan's own comments in recent months to the last major speech of his career, it was clear he struggled mightily with the decision.
"I had to ask myself, could I send another man's son to death under the deeply flawed system of capital punishment that we have in Illinois?" the 68-year-old Ryan said in his speech at Northwestern University on Saturday.
It was an extraordinary reversal for a man who not only supported the death penalty throughout his career as a law-and-order Republican from Kankakee, but also knew first hand of the brutality of convicts on death row.
"I never intended to be an activist on this issue," he said.
In fact, it would have been hard to find a less likely activist on the issue than Ryan.
Twelve years before he took office, Steve Small, who had been a baby sitter for Ryan's own children, was abducted and buried alive in a shallow grave as part of an extortion plot. He died before police could find him. Small's killer, Danny Edwards, was convicted and sentenced to die.
Ryan's election in 1998 "gave us no particular cause to believe that anything besides business as usual was going to occur" with regard to the death penalty, recalled Lawrence Marshall, legal director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "There was nothing at all in his record that reflected any sensitivity to this beyond that of any other Republican politician."
Indeed, as governor, Ryan quickly proved he was willing to impose the death penalty. Two months into his term, he signed the death warrant for Andrew Kokoraleis, who had been convicted of mutilating and murdering a 21-year-old woman. Hours later, Kokoraleis was executed.
But Ryan was aware that just days earlier, a convicted killer named Anthony Porter had been released from death row after another man confessed to the crime. Ryan was clearly troubled by the Porter case.
"That was the single most important event in the education of George Ryan," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "He knew very well had the Supreme Court not delayed that execution, he would have allowed it to proceed."
Less than a year later, Ryan halted all executions in Illinois, pointing out that since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977, 13 death row inmates had been exonerated - more than the 12 executed.
Ryan started to study the capital punishment system in Illinois. "The governor's office did ask us for background on individual cases and statistical information," Warden recalled. Ryan would learn, for example, that juries were more likely impose a death sentence if victims were white than if they were black.
The governor grew angry after a blue-ribbon panel gave him 85 recommendations to improve the state's capital punishment system, and lawmakers passed none of the sweeping changes Ryan pushed.
On Saturday he announced his decision. "The legislature couldn't reform it. Lawmakers won't repeal it. And I won't stand for it," he said.
Ryan is leaving office after a single, four-year term. He did not seek re-election in November after his administration became engulfed in scandal that began with the selling of driver's licenses for bribes. Federal prosecutors appear to be closing in on Ryan himself.
Ryan said he realized the anger his decision on the death penalty would trigger from prosecutors and victims' families who had been intensely lobbying him for weeks not to spare the lives of such brutal killers. He did not even have to leave his house to find out, he said: "My wife, she was angry and disappointed at my decision."
But the decision seemed to bring peace to Ryan.
"You could see a little more relief," recalled Dennis Culloton, Ryan's spokesman.
Among those Ryan released from death row was the man who killed the family friend years ago. Even so, Ryan said, "I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing I made the right decision."

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