"These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual."
--US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Furman v. Georgia, 1972

"Every one of the victims, he has killed them all over again."
--Cathy Drobney, victim's mother

This is the text of the letter that outgoing Illinois governor George Ryan sent to the families of victims in cases for which the defendant was condemned to die in Illinois. It was sent on January 10, 2003, a day before the governor announced the blanket commutation of all pending death sentences in the state of Illinois. This should be read in conjunction with his speech of the following day.

On Saturday, January 11, at Northwestern University, I will announce my decision with respect to the clemency application filed by death row prisoners.

As you know, I met with the family members of homicide victims in either Chicago or Springfield. I also heard some of the family members' testimony at the Prisoner Review Board hearings and reviewed the hearing testimony.

During the past three years of reviewing the flaws in the death penalty system, my thoughts and feelings about the topic have changed many, many times. I know that over the course of my review, I have said that I would consider all of the options available to me and make my decision based on my findings. I have said that blanket commutation was an option, on the front burner, the back burner and out of consideration. I realize I have contradicted myself on the issue of blanket commutation. As you know, the death penalty issue is a very emotional issue and often times emotions change from time to time. That is certainly true in my case. I believe public officials should always reserve the right to change their minds - especially if it is in the best interest of the public.

I have kept an open mind on both sides of the issue - commutation to life without parole or death. I know that any decision I make will not be accepted by both sides. I am prepared to live with that because I know that I have done my very best to come to the conclusion that I feel is the best public policy for the people of Illinois. I also know that I probably will continue to have changing emotions with my final decision. But I also know in my heart that I did my best to do the right thing.

As I continued my individual review of the cases, this review reinforced my belief that our death penalty system was and is unreliable. Cases of wrongful conviction continue to appear. Just last month, prosecutors released four men previously convicted of murder because they were innocent of the charge. I had to reflect on the number of times our system has failed to convict the right person. If we have had so many instances where we have not convicted the right person, how can any of us be sure that our death penalty sentencing process is any better? Even if the person is guilty of the crime charged, has our sentencing process been really fair and free of improper influences or geographic influences - or other arbitrary factors? What should I make of the incompetent work of defense attorneys?

Moreover, each year we have approximately 1,000 people murdered in the state of Illinois. More than 98 percent of victims' families do not get, and will not receive, whatever satisfaction can be derived from the execution of the murderer. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart has said that imposition of the death penalty on defendants in the United States is as freakish and arbitrary as who gets hit by a bolt of lightning.

Based on my in-depth individualized review of the cases, I have decided to pardon a small number of individuals and to commute the remaining sentences of death row inmates to life without parole. I have pardoned Madison Hobley, Stanley Howard, Aaron Patterson and Leroy Orange based on their innocence. I have imposed 40-year sentences on Mario Flores, Montell Johnson and William Franklin that are consistent with the sentences imposed upon their co-defendants and the other extraordinary circumstances of these cases.

While many of you will not be pleased with the decision that I have made, I have come to peace within myself that I have made the right decision. I am not prepared to take the risk that we may execute an innocent person, or execute someone who really was not sentenced to death in a fair proceeding or under a reformed capital punishment system. The General Assembly has not enacted any of the recommendations from my Commission on Capital Punishment. This commission was composed of some of the brightest and most experienced legal minds in our state. Despite this, no serious effort has been made to adopt these reforms.

The action I have taken in commuting these sentences will leave the newly elected governor and the new General Assembly with a clean slate. They can undertake serious reform of the death penalty system knowing that they will not have to struggle with the question of whether the new reforms should be applied retroactively.

Once again, I want to express my deepest sympathies for the loss you have suffered. I know that nothing that I can do will bring your loved one back. I wish you the very best for the future, and I hope that you can find peace in knowing that I have made this decision with respect to all death row inmates, rather than just picking and choosing the cases in which someone will be spared. I have chosen to exercise mercy under all these circumstances. May God bless you.




The copy of this speech is an historical document and its content does not necessarily reflect the poster's views on the subject.