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Ryan could be on way to prison after appeals court denies hearing
CHICAGO -- A federal appeals court turned down former governor George Ryan's plea for a fresh hearing in his corruption conviction Thursday, raising the possibility he could forced to go to prison within two weeks.
In a dramatic 6-3 decision, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a claim by Ryan and co-defendant Larry Warner that chaotic jury deliberations had wrecked their chances of getting a fair trial.
The appeals court decision left the 73-year-old Ryan with few options and it appeared that one of the biggest political scandals in Illinois history might finally be headed into its endgame after nine years.
Ryan's defense attorney, former governor James R. Thompson, told reporters he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court within days and try to delay the start of Ryan's 6 1/2-year racketeering and fraud sentence in the meanwhile.
"If the Supreme Court does not hear our appeal it will be the end of the line and Gov. Ryan will have to report to prison," Thompson said.
He said he had spoken with Ryan by telephone and the white haired Republican former governor with the distinctive husky voice, known for his opposition to the death penalty, had made it plain he was disappointed.
"I told him to keep fighting," Thompson said. "He said he would keep fighting. What do you think he's going to do, quit? He won't quit."
But the Supreme Court appeared to hold out little more than a faint glimmer of hope because the high court takes few cases.
Thompson hoped the appeals court would extend Ryan's bond one more time while a last-ditch effort is made in the Supreme Court. But Thompson said both sides would ask trial Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer at a hearing set for 10 a.m. Friday to set a Nov. 7 surrender date in case the appeals court refuses Ryan's request.
Ryan has been free on bond since a jury convicted him in April 2006 of steering millions of dollars in state contracts, using taxpayer money and state workers to run his campaigns and covering up driver's license bribes.
A three-judge panel of the court of appeals had already turned down requests from both Ryan and Warner to have their convictions overturned.
In Thursday's decision, the six majority judges on the appeals court took just a single paragraph to dismiss the request for a rehearing.
Even the three judges who voted to grant Ryan a rehearing by the full court agreed "that the evidence of the defendant's guilt was overwhelming." But they dismissed claims that the chaos surrounding the jury at the trial's end was "harmless."
"But harmlessness is not the test of reversible error when a cascade of errors turns a trial into a travesty," the three judges said.
The three dissenting judges, Richard A. Posner, Michael S. Kanne and Ann Clair Williams, were sharply critical of Pallmeyer. They said long trials increase the likelihood of jury problems.
"The trial should not have taken anywhere near the six months that it did take," they said in a 14-page opinion. "Its excessive length contributed both to the procedural errors that marred it and the failure of judicial correction of those errors."
Telephone calls to Ryan's home and cell phone went unanswered.
One legal expert, Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said it was "a very long shot" that the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case and an even "longer shot" that Ryan would be allowed to remain free on bond while the justices weighed such an appeal.
"The fact that he was allowed to stay out as long as he's been allowed to stay out is quite rare in the federal system," Kling said. He said the Supreme Court most often takes cases with rare or unique issues to decide.
"And I'm not sure that the issues with respect to Mr. Ryan are so unique or so rare that the Supreme Court is going to decide that this is a case they need to take," he said.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald issued a statement Thursday saying the government was "pleased that the full Court of Appeals has decided to let stand the initial careful opinion of the court's majority, which held that the defendants received a fair trial."
The eight-year investigation began after six children in one family were killed in a highway disaster involving a truck driver whose Illinois license allegedly had been purchased with a bribe.
Ryan was secretary of state at the time.
The investigation known as Operation Safe Road resulted not only in the conviction of Ryan and Warner but dozens of other state officials and lobbyists.
Associated Press Writer Tara Burghart contributed to this report.