As an Illinois legislator, George Ryan believed the state’s death penalty was an effective means of deterring crime and punishing those convicted of the most heinous wrongdoing.
On the day he was sworn in as governor in 1988, Ryan took note of a series of stories published in the Chicago Tribune detailing flaws in the death penalty system. Ryan’s shift from supporter to skeptic and eventually to being an opponent of capital punishment is chronicled in a newly released book, "Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped The Death Penalty In Illinois," authored by Ryan and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley.
In a recent interview with WGLT, the 86-year-old former governor recalled the case that served as a tipping point for his imposition of a moratorium on executions. Anthony Porter, an inmate freed after students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found new evidence proving his innocence, was within 48 hours of leaving his cell for the death chamber when he was exonerated.
Ryan was sitting in the governor’s mansion in Springfield with his late wife Lura Lynn when the story of Porter’s release was broadcast on the news.
“I said to my wife, ‘How does that happen in America?’”
Ryan questioned how a man could “be put on death row for 15 to 16 years in this country and wake up every day having to worry about whether they’re going to pull the switch to kill him. That’s really what grabbed my attention on this issue and I started to move forward.”
The exhaustive review by journalists of 285 death row cases, combined with the introduction of DNA as a new tool for testing evidence, opened the door to “the awakening of the public consciousness,” said Possley.
Ryan followed the rising number of people leaving prison and studied the reasons for their exonerations.
“The governor was seeing these people walk off death row, to the point you had more people exonerated than there were executed,” said Possley.
Possley said reporters and journalism students led by Northwestern professor David Protess “played a significant role in exposing the flaws in the criminal justice system and then it was up to those in positions of power to do something about it.”
As part of his lengthy deliberations ahead of the 2000 moratorium, Ryan met with exonerees and the families of victims.
“The victim’s families were the worst to deal with and I understood that,” said Ryan.
Loved ones told Ryan that executions brought a sense of closure. The scalding, lasting grief felt by victims was personal for Ryan: Among the death sentences he commuted in 2003 was that of Danny Edwards, the man who murdered Ryan’s friend and neighbor, Steve Small, in 1987.
As the number of exonerations continued to rise, Ryan named a commission to study the death penalty system. The panel returned with 85 recommendations and a recognition that the system was broken, but no clear opinion on whether capital punishment should be banned.
In April 2003--three months after Ryan left office—lawmakers approved just one of the 85 recommendations, a law requiring video recording of interrogations and confessions in homicide cases. In 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty.
Ryan’s effort to end the death penalty “ was so momentous because no governor had ever done such a thing and it drew attention to the issue of innocence, which had not been a compelling argument for a lot of people,” in the death penalty debate, said Possley.
With 330 wrongful convictions recorded in Illinois since 1989, the state is a not-so-distant second behind Texas, which leads the nation with 383 exonerations. Cook County tops the list of counties for wrongful convictions with 230, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The title of the book draws from a comment Ryan repeated multiple times in response to questions about the timing of a final decision on the death penalty.
"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 told reporters.
In the final pages of Ryan’s memoir, the former governor addresses his own conviction on federal charges related to his tenure as secretary of state. Critics have linked Ryan’s campaign against the death penalty to the federal investigation, saying his decision to empty out death row was an attempt to detract attention from an impending federal probe.
“Personally, I don’t believe it helped me a bit … it probably put a target on my back,” Ryan said of the moratorium that made him unpopular with prosecutors across the state.
With federal executions again occurring after a 17-year lull, the authors see a renewed relevance for the death penalty discussion. Changes have been made to correct some but not all of the flaws that contribute to wrongful convictions, said Possley, including changes in how informant and eyewitness identification may be used.
Ryan stands by his decision to commute death row sentences, a move that halted executions until the death penalty was abolished.
“I still believe it was the right thing to do and I would do it again, I suppose,” said Ryan.
You can also listen to the full interview:
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.