A Talk With Governor George Ryan

A Talk With Governor George Ryan

The governor issued a moratorium on executions in Illinois a year ago, after investigative-reporting students and their professor saved an innocent man from the death chamber.


If you sent to central casting for a Midwestern conservative, they'd send back Governor George Ryan of Illinois. With his white hair, plain business suit and heartland directness, Ryan is nobody's image of a crusading criminal-justice reformer. Not even his own. "I mean, I am a Republican pharmacist from Kankakee. All of a sudden I've got gays and lesbians by my side. African-Americans. Senators from Italy, groups from around the world. It's a little surprising."

A year ago in January, Ryan took a step unprecedented in the history of American capital punishment: He issued an open-ended moratorium on executions in Illinois. The immediate impetus: the exoneration of thirteen death-row inmates. Ryan's predecessor, Governor Jim Edgar, called those exonerations proof that "the system works." Ryan saw something different.

Ryan's moratorium received international attention, but his journey to that decision remained a largely private matter. He did not make the decision in a vacuum–legislators, lawyers and the media played a big role–but what led him to break so definitively with the bipartisan pro-execution consensus, and where his thinking has gone since, strikes at the core of the shifting politics of death.

Ryan, whose family owned several neighborhood drugstores in Kankakee for forty years, joined the Illinois legislature in the 1970s as a staunch law-and-order man. "I believed some crimes were so heinous that the only proper way of protecting society was execution. I saw a nation in the grip of increasing crime rates; and tough sentences, more jails, the death penalty–that was good government." In 1977, after the Supreme Court lifted its ban on execution, a bill to reinstate the death penalty came before the Statehouse in Springfield. When an anti-death-penalty legislator asked his colleagues to consider whether they personally would be willing to throw the switch, Ryan rose to his feet with "unequivocal words of support" for execution–words he now regrets. The truth, though, was that Ryan never thought about capital punishment much, before that vote or for more than twenty years afterward, except as an abstract idea of justice. "I supported the death penalty, I believed in the death penalty, I voted for the death penalty."

In September 1998, as Ryan was running for governor, an Illinois inmate named Anthony Porter, a man with an IQ of 51, was scheduled to die for a 1982 murder. Two days before Porter's execution date his lawyers won a temporary reprieve. Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess turned his investigative-reporting students loose on the case, and by February the evidence they obtained left the newly inaugurated Governor Ryan reeling: a videotaped confession by the real killer, freeing Porter after eighteen years. "I was caught completely off-guard. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but I was. That mentally retarded man came within two days of execution, and but for those students Anthony Porter would have been dead and buried. I felt jolted into re-examining everything I believed in." At first, a conflicted Ryan waffled on a full-fledged review of Illinois's capital apparatus, but ultimately he endorsed one concrete initiative: an $18 million capital-crimes-litigation fund to insure that defendants like Porter, as well as prosecutors, have access to investigative resources.

That experience also collided, within weeks, with a gubernatorial responsibility Ryan himself had helped enact: signing off on an execution. In the spring of 1999 the case of Andrew Kokoraleis landed on Ryan's desk. Kokoraleis had been found guilty of the rape, mutilation and murder of a 21-year-old woman. "This was a horrible crime, and I am the father of five daughters. But after the mistakes the system had made with Porter, I wasn't sure what to do. I agonized. I checked and double-checked and triple-checked the facts." In the end Ryan went through with it, and Kokoraleis was executed. But, says Ryan, "it was the most emotional experience I have ever been through in my life. It all came down to me–the one fellow who has to pull the switch. Quite frankly, that is too much to ask of one person."

Within three months, two more Illinois death-row inmates were exonerated: one by DNA evidence, the other when a jailhouse informant's testimony was discredited. The state judiciary began its own investigation, and the calls for a moratorium grew. Still, "I was resisting." But one day "the attorney general called seeking a new execution date for an inmate. In my heart at that moment, I couldn't go forward with it." Political cynics wondered if Ryan shifted his position to deflect attention from charges of corruption against his Secretary of State, but Ryan's description of his internal turmoil is compelling. "I knew I couldn't make myself live through what I'd experienced with Kokoraleis," he says. "I just couldn't do it again."

In the fall of 1999 the Chicago Tribune published an examination of every Illinois death-row case since 1977, revealing, among other things, that more than one-third of all 285 Illinois capital convictions over that period had been reversed because of "fundamental error." It was the final straw. Last January Ryan acted, unilaterally issuing his moratorium. He also assembled a commission, including such notable death-penalty opponents as Scott Turow and former Senator Paul Simon, to report on the roots of Illinois's false-conviction record. Ryan's moratorium–combined with relentless reporting by the Tribune–has had a seismic impact on Illinois politics. The commission's hearings have insured that death-row injustice is never far from the front page.

Ryan's position has changed over the past year. In May he told Northwestern students he doubted there would be another execution on his watch. Now, he is convinced that "moral certainty" in capital cases isn't possible. And he's broadened his focus: "My concern is not just with the death penalty as a singular issue; it's with the entire criminal justice system. If innocent people are sentenced to death–cases that get all kinds of scrutiny–what does that say about invisible, low-level cases, drug cases and so on?" Ryan has ordered the first wholesale reassessment of Illinois's criminal code in forty years; when he talks about sentencing disparities for drug offenses he sounds more like Jesse Jackson than Dennis Hastert.

Ryan argues, with great passion, that criminal-justice reformers need to extend their traditional concern for the poor to middle-class and suburban defendants–building a bridge to new constituencies. "I have seen people charged in drug cases where down comes the full force of the federal Treasury," he says. "Someone who is poor will get a free lawyer. But a truck driver, for instance, will have to mortgage his house and sell his rig to pay a lawyer. Then, when he is found not guilty, where can he go to get that house back, to get on with his life?"

These days Ryan often gets asked how he feels about fellow Republican George W. Bush's love affair with executions. He says he's had a "short conversation" with Bush about it and quickly adds that he has far more authority than Bush to halt individual executions.

Ryan's transformation is a journey still in progress. Most Americans will never have the occasion to feel revulsion for their own role in an execution. But that "jolt" he felt, and the moral anguish that followed, mirror a growing public unease. "A lot of people are like me, I think. The death penalty was a fact of life," he says. "But as people become more and more aware of the unfairness, they become less enthusiastic." Ryan, the heartland conservative, has tested his lifelong support for the death penalty against the evidence, and the institution has come up short: "I question the entire system and the people connected with it."

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