Denouncing a system that is "so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare," Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium Monday on the death penalty in Illinois, marking the first time any state has taken such dramatic action.
"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 a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate," Ryan said.
Ryan decried the state's "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on Death Row" and repeatedly referred to the 13 condemned inmates who have been cleared since Illinois reinstated capital punishment in 1977, one more than the number of inmates the state has executed.
The governor said his decision was spurred by the wrongful convictions and a recent Tribune investigative series, "The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois," which examined the state's 285 capital cases and exposed how bias, error and incompetence have turned the state's harshest punishment into its least credible. The investigation revealed that roughly half the death-penalty cases that have completed at least one round of appeals have been reversed for a new trial or sentencing hearing. It also detailed how misconduct by prosecutors and police, dubious forensic evidence and such unscrupulous tactics as excluding blacks from juries have contributed to wrongful convictions.
Ryan specifically pointed to the Tribune's findings that questionable jailhouse-informant testimony had been used in at least 46 death-penalty cases, and that 33 Death Row inmates were represented at trial by an attorney who has been disbarred or suspended.
"Disbarred lawyers, jailhouse informants--those kinds of problems are in the system, and we've got to get them out," Ryan said.
Ryan's announcement received broad support statewide and nationally. In Illinois, even conservative legislators who support capital punishment lauded Ryan's decision, as did Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan and the Cook County state's attorney's office. Nationally, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the Senate judiciary com-mittee who is readying a package of death penalty reforms, called Ryan's decision "courageous and timely." Leahy said it would be "a catalyst for a similar review in Washington."
Death penalty critics and American Bar Association leaders said they hope Ryan's decision will prompt other states to follow suit.
"When a conservative Republican governor in a large state with a large Death Row recognizes that there are so many systemic questions about the death penalty, it strongly buttresses the need for a moratorium in all the other states," said New York City attorney Ronald Tabak, who heads a death-penalty committee for the ABA, the nation's largest lawyers' group. "As great a need as there is for a moratorium in Illinois, the need is even greater in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and many other states."
The association came out in support of a national moratorium three years ago.
Despite concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person, Ryan said he continues to support the death penalty. In March, he declined to halt the execution of Andrew Kokoraleis, but called it a "very agonizing" decision.
The threat of an innocent person being executed--a specter raised by the country's growing number of wrongful-conviction cases--has helped fuel movements in numerous states to suspend or even abolish the death penalty.
But Ryan's decision makes Illinois the first of the country's 38 states with the death penalty to formally suspend executions pending a review of the capital justice system.
At least six states considered a moratorium last year, but none adopted such a measure. The closest any state came was Nebraska, where legislators approved a moratorium bill but the governor vetoed it.
The Illinois House approved a moratorium bill last year, but the measure failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
By temporarily suspending executions, Ryan has in effect taken the very step at which the Senate balked. As governor, Ryan has the power to grant stays or reprieves, a move that does not negate a death sentence but does delay execution.
"There's going to be a lot of folks who are firm believers in the death penalty who may not agree with what I'm doing here today," Ryan said. "But I am the fellow who has to make the ultimate decision whether someone is injected with a poison that's going to take their life."
Ryan said he would not approve another execution until he has appointed a committee to study the capital system's flaws and that committee has finished its review and made recommendations. "This, in effect, is a moratorium," he said.
The governor said he has not decided who will be on the committee, but added, "It's not going to be a stacked panel one way or the other."
Ryan also said he has not set any timetable for the committee to complete its work. In the meantime, Ryan's decision will not prevent prosecutors from continuing to pursue the death penalty in pending cases.
At least three other committees created by the General Assembly and state Supreme Court have been studying the death penalty as well.
Ryan denied that he is imposing a moratorium to deflect attention from a growing driver's licenses-for-bribes scandal that occurred while he was secretary of state, saying the move was necessary to prevent the execution of innocent defendants. Ryan even mentioned that a 14th Death Row inmate might soon be cleared of a murder.
A Ryan spokesman said the governor was referring to Edgar Hope Jr., who has been condemned twice for separate murders. Students at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and their professor, Richard Kling, filed court papers last week saying they uncovered evidence that implicated a different man in one of the slayings.
Investigations by Northwestern University journalism students played a role in three exoneration cases, including last year's release of Anthony Porter, who came within two days of execution.
"How do you prevent another Anthony Porter--another innocent man or woman from paying the ultimate penalty for a crime he or she did not commit?" Ryan said. "Today I cannot answer that question."
Cook County Public Defender Rita Fry, who recently called for an investigation into possible police and prosecutorial misconduct in the 13 wrongful-conviction cases, said she trusted Ryan's motives.
"I assume that he's doing it for all the right reasons," Fry said. "I think he realizes that this is an embarrassment to Illinois and that the system, while not perfect, could certainly be better. I think he's trying to do the right thing."
Two weeks ago, Cook County defendant Steve Manning became the 13th Illinois Death Row inmate to be cleared. In its five-part series published in November, the Tribune exposed the holes in the prosecution's case against Manning, including its reliance upon a jailhouse informant with a history of lying.
Ryan received support from fellow Republicans who favor the death penalty, including state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale.
"The person who stands behind the final lethal injection and the prisoner is George Ryan," Dillard said. "He's the final stopper, and if he's not comfortable with the process, then I would support his efforts to have experts make him comfortable with the process.
"My guess is virtually every member of the Senate Republican caucus supports the death penalty, and I don't know how any of us could oppose the governor wanting to make sure that the death-penalty system, the most important cornerstone of Illinois criminal law, is working properly. How can you not want to make sure?"
Lawrence Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor whose work helped free two of the state's 13 exonerated Death Row inmates, said Ryan's decision "is a wonderful, wonderful statement of his moral ground."
"Even if a person looks guilty, he now knows from our lessons in Illinois that looks can deceive," Marshall said.
But, Marshall said, the moratorium is only a first step.
"The real question is going to become: What happens? What does the commission look like and how seriously do they take their job?" Marshall said.
Ryan's moratorium will have the most immediate effect on Death Row inmates Willie Enoch and Walter Thomas. Dan Curry, a spokesman for Jim Ryan, said they are nearest in line for execution, having all but exhausted their appeals.
Enoch was sentenced to death in Peoria County for the 1983 rape and murder of a Peoria woman, and Thomas was condemned for the stabbing death of an Aurora woman during a 1986 robbery.
Ten more Death Row inmates could reach the end of their appeals within the next year, Curry said. But the attorney general supports the moratorium and will not seek execution dates until the suspension is lifted, Curry said.
"(Jim Ryan) and others involved in the administration of criminal justice in Illinois want to make sure capital punishment operates fairly," Curry said. "Everyone is working toward the same goal. And if the governor believes the process should continue in an execution-free environment, the attorney general supports that."
David Erickson, the top aide to Cook County State's Atty. Dick Devine, said the office supports Ryan's moratorium. Roughly half the death sentences in Illinois involve Cook County cases.
The commission that Ryan plans to appoint should look at every aspect of the capital system, beginning with whether Illinois has too many categories of crimes that are punishable by death, Erickson said.
"The fundamental question that the legislature and people who support the death penalty have to answer is this: If it's the supreme punishment, why do we keep expanding the definition of what makes a capital crime?" Erickson said. "Our position would be that if you're going to do an examination of the entire system, then you really do the entire system."
Although he did not directly criticize Ryan's decision, state Sen. Ed Petka (R-Plainfield), a former Will County state's attorney, said the moratorium has "little practical effect" because executions take so long to carry out.
"I believe in capital punishment, and I think the quicker we get on with the business of getting rid of hard-core, cold-blooded killers who are truly guilty" the better, Petka said.
But state Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora), another staunch conservative who supports the death penalty, said he wholeheartedly agreed with Ryan's decision.
"What else could we do?" Lauzen said. "Nobody wants to put innocent people on Death Row."