Illinois Supreme Court backs Ryan death row choice

Saturday, January 24, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that former Gov. George Ryan had the power to commute the sentences of everyone on the state's death row before he left office last year.

The justices found that a governor's pardon power is essentially unreviewable.

The Republican governor commuted the sentences of 167 inmates and pardoned four others three years after he had halted all state executions over concerns of unjust convictions.

The state attorney general challenged Ryan's constitutional authority in 32 of the cases, arguing some inmates hadn't sought clemency as required by state law and others didn't have death sentences at the time because their cases were being appealed.

The high court disagreed. "We believe that the grant of authority given the governor ... is sufficiently broad to allow former Gov. Ryan to do what he did," Justice Bob Thomas wrote for the majority.

No dissents were filed Friday, though they said they felt pardons and commutations should be handled individually, rather than in the mass fashion Ryan used when he cleared death row.

"This puts an end at last to a very sorry chapter in Illinois criminal history, and now we can get about the business of trying to improve the system for the future," said Larry Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who represented some of the inmates.

Ryan issued the execution moratorium after it was discovered that 13 Illinois death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, prompting fears that a flawed criminal justice system could lead to others unjustly being condemned.

State lawmakers approved a package of bills last spring designed to reform the death penalty system, including giving the Supreme Court greater power to toss out unjust verdicts, letting defendants have more access to evidence and barring the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness.

This week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared the reform effort complete, though he said he would wait to lift the execution moratorium until he sees how the changes affect future trials.

Two inmates have been sent to death row since the blanket commutations.

Ryan, 69, was nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for his actions involving the death penalty.

He also is under a racketeering indictment, accused last month by a federal grand jury of taking payoffs and gifts in return for letting associates profit from state contracts when he was Illinois secretary of state in the 1990s.

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