Most soon-to-be former governors, on their way out of office, keep a low profile as they prepare to pass the torch on to their successor. But that wasn’t the case with George Ryan.
On Jan. 11, 2003, just two days before his term expired, Ryan made national and international news by commuting the sentences of all 167 inmates on Illinois’ death row.
Now, in a new book, “Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois,” the former Republican governor reflects on his painstaking, often emotional journey from being an early supporter of reinstating capital punishment to the man who almost singlehandedly brought it down.
“I guess I was just taking my time,” Ryan, now 86, said during an interview when asked why he chose to release the book now. “You know, I did what I could while I was there, and I wanted to get it researched and get it done and do it right.”
A pharmacist from Kankakee, Ryan rose through the ranks of Republican politics in Illinois, first helping run the campaign of former Rep. Edward McBroom, and later winning a seat on the Kankakee County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the Illinois House in 1972, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty nationwide.
But the court would reverse itself four years later after several states, including Illinois, adopted new laws that they hoped would meet constitutional muster. The first one in Illinois, passed in 1973, was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court. But in 1977, the General Assembly enacted another law that would survive court challenges.
Drawing extensively from House journals, Ryan recalls the passionate debate over House Bill 10, including the comments of Rep. Elroy Sandquist, a Chicago Republican, who asked, just as members were about to push their switches to vote yes or no: “Would you also push your switch to turn on the electricity to take someone’s life? Because that’s what you’re doing when you pull that switch to vote yes.”
“I believed the bill was necessary,” Ryan wrote. “And so, I pressed green to vote yes.”
The bill passed, 118-41, and later sailed through the Senate and was signed into law by then-Gov. James Thompson.
Ryan would go on to serve as speaker of the House from 1981 to 1983, when he became lieutenant governor under Gov. Jim Edgar. He would serve two terms in that office before being elected secretary of state in 1990, a post that would eventually bring about his political downfall. But the downfall wouldn’t come before he was elected Illinois’ 39th governor in 1998.
By that time, DNA evidence was becoming widely used to exonerate a number of death row inmates nationwide and the tactics used by police and prosecutors to obtain murder convictions – including the use of jailhouse snitches, phony evidence and coerced confessions – were coming under mounting scrutiny.
On the day of Ryan’s inauguration, the Chicago Tribune published the first in a series of stories about prosecutorial misconduct that identified nearly 400 murder convictions nationwide, including 46 in Illinois, that had been reversed because prosecutors either failed to turn over evidence of a defendant’s innocence or knowingly used false evidence.
But Ryan said the turning point for him came one month into his term as governor, in February 1999, when Illinois death row inmate Anthony Porter was freed after journalism students at Northwestern University uncovered evidence of his innocence. Porter had been granted a stay of execution the previous fall when he was just two days away from his execution date.
“That's what caught my attention about the death penalty,” Ryan said in the interview. “And that – kind of a long story – that evolved, but it was the fact that I was concerned about the whole system is just prone with error. I mean, it's just got error in every corner.”
Barely a month later, Ryan allowed an execution to go forward, the only one to occur during his administration and the last one carried out in Illinois. Andrew Kokoraleis, who had been convicted of taking part in multiple gruesome murders in the Chicago area by a group of four men who came to be known as the “Ripper Crew.”
“And that was very difficult for me to do,” Ryan recalled. “This guy was a bad guy, Korkoraleis. He was a terrible guy.”
Kokoraleis was the 12th person executed in Illinois since reinstatement of the death penalty; 11 others had been sentenced to death and later exonerated. Then in May 1999, Cook County prosecutors dismissed charges against Ronald Jones after DNA evidence excluded him as a suspect in the 1985 rape and murder for which he’d been convicted, evening the score at 12.
Pressure soon began mounting to impose a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Ryan initially opposed such a move, but after two more death row inmates were exonerated in the ensuing months he relented and announced a moratorium on Jan. 31, 2000, making him the first U.S. governor to do so.
“Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing lethal injection, no one will meet that fate,” Ryan said at a news conference.
Ryan then established a 14-member Death Penalty Moratorium Commission, made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys and others, that eventually made 85 recommendations on how to tighten the state’s death penalty law to guard against the possibility of executing innocent people.
Ryan writes at length about what happened from there – the behind-the-scenes machinations over the death penalty in the General Assembly; the friction that his decision created within the Republican Party, and with incoming President George W. Bush; and the global reaction within the anti-death penalty movement.
In the end, though, state lawmakers adopted only one of the commission’s 85 recommendations – a requirement that murder interrogations and confessions must be videotaped – prompting Ryan in the final days of his administration to issue the blanket commutation of all death sentences to life in prison.
“They didn't want to look like they're soft on crime,” Ryan said. “I think I talked in my book, when Jim Edgar ran against Dawn Clark Netsch, she was against the death penalty. And he made it look like she was soft on crime and just beat her to death with it. … So I didn't know how else to do it than what I did.”
By that time, Ryan was already under federal investigation for what came to be known as the “Licenses for Bribes” scandal while he was secretary of state – granting commercial truck driver’s licenses to unqualified drivers in exchange for campaign donations. He was convicted in 2006 and served over five and a half years in federal prison.
Today, Ryan doesn’t spend much time focusing on what happens in Springfield, or on the scandals swirling around the present General Assembly.
“I'm not there anymore and I don't know all the inside stuff that goes on,” he said. “It’s a tough job being governor and especially in a condition you got today. (JB) Pritzker has got his hands full with the virus and the budget and all other things that are going on. So it's just gonna take some time to get a lot of this stuff straightened out, and it's gonna be difficult. I'm not sure I'd want to be there now.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.